Why Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song is one of the strangest books ever

The 2023 Booker winner, Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song, is a vastly admirable book, but there is something deeply odd about it: it is a novel about a dystopian coup that takes down Ireland’s ‘liberal democracy’, not about the dystopian coup that was actually happening at the time it was written. By definition, most novels are stories rendered from imagined events, set in the past, present or future. But there are occasional examples that are fictionalised accounts of real events – almost always, by definition, from the past, and rather contradictorily termed ‘non-fiction novels’ – as well as imagined vistas from the future – almost always dystopias, most famously, George Orwell’s 1984.

Julie Burchill

The parasitic poisonousness of Omid Scobie

I don’t remember exactly when I first read about the ancient courtier role of Groom of the Stool, but it’s a fascinating business. Here’s Wikipedia to explain:  ‘The Groom of the Stool was the most intimate of an English monarch’s courtiers, responsible for assisting in excretion. The physical intimacy of the role naturally led to his becoming a man in whom much confidence was placed by his royal master and with whom many royal secrets were shared as a matter of course. It is a matter of some debate as to whether the duties involved cleaning the king’s anus, but the groom is known to have been responsible for supplying

The problem with climate protesting clergy

Received wisdom suggests that you would not expect a vicar to disrupt Divine Worship. Now, anybody who’s worked with the clergy up close will know that in this case, as in so many areas, received wisdom is wrong. Still, there was shock in news outlets and on social media this week when a gaggle of Christians, including clerics, disrupted Evensong at Chichester in the name of climate action.  Those clergy involved think they’re the children of the revolution when actually they’re the Primrose League Their general propensity for mischief aside, there should be absolutely no surprise at all that clergy were involved in this very particular protest. Clerics are predominately

When did publishers stop caring what their readers actually want?

It was easy to choose books for my young nieces and nephews this Christmas. First, I ruled out stories about boys who think they are girls, girls who dream of having their breasts removed, and pet rabbits unhappy at being misgendered. Then I rejected books telling toddlers how to be anti-racist and older children how to be allies to their black classmates. Feminist manuals on women who changed the world, all of which feature at least one woman who was actually male, went the same way as history books that divide the past into tales of victimised black people and evil white people. Worthy tomes about climate change, rising sea

Henry Kissinger saved us from a much worse world

‘If I give you a copy of my book,’ I said to Henry Kissinger two months ago, ‘which chapter will you read first?’ ‘I will look myself up in the index,’ he replied in that voice that sounded like a cement mixer on the blink, ‘and start there.’ He automatically assumed that a book I had written with General David Petraeus on the evolution of conflict from 1945 to Ukraine would of course make reference to his career, his opinions, his contribution to history. Anything else would be unthinkable. And of course he was right. Here is a man who in many ways fashioned the world we live in today,

The Swiss appetite for wine gives them a good name

A friend was in town, who rebuts two instances of dull conventional wisdom. The first is that although Swiss Germans may have many qualities – they make excellent bankers – they have no joie de vivre. The Calvinist heritage persists. Second, that the Swiss are an implacably martial race. Other armies, especially the British, use humour to palliate the rigours of serving. The Swiss would be appalled by such frivolity, which may explain why no one has been in a hurry to assail their mountains. There was a serious French restaurant across the border, so he borrowed a tank and set off In both respects, Nick Sillich is a triumphant exception.

Stephen Daisley

Is Scotland waking up to the dire state of its NHS?

If the NHS is the closest thing we have to a religion, as Nigel Lawson reckoned, then Paul Gray is not just a blasphemer but an apostate. Professor Gray has called the NHS in Scotland ‘unsustainable’ and urged a public conversation about reform, including the use of the private sector. His intervention is significant because professor Gray was between 2013 and 2019 the chief executive of NHS Scotland. He is, to be clear, not proposing privatisation, merely urging a debate about delivery and funding. But even that is scandalous to a political establishment that prides itself on having less private sector involvement than there is south of the border. Professor

2630: Souvenir – solution

The puzzle appeared on 11 November 2023. The unclued lights reveal ‘The CENOTAPH and POPPY evoke REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY, once ARMISTICE DAY, the ARMISTICE being SIGNED at the ELEVENTH HOUR, ELEVENTH DAY and ELEVENTH MONTH’. First prize Victoria Estcourt, Tisbury, Wilts Runners-up John Harley, Norton, Stockton on Tees; M.D. Conway, Grimsby

2633: Highly critical

The unclued entries (two of one word, two of two words, two of three words) combine to form a quotation. Elsewhere, ignore two accents.         Across    1    Promotions to fix in commercial vehicles (12) 10    Eager pupil’s plea for online phenomenon (4) 12    Cockney dish rose, having turned end (3,1,4,2) 14    Remark further problem with concentration (3) 15    Angler uses this weight in river, they say (8) 17    Gold cloth piece is not silver – this might be either (5) 18    Win back billion, not having a scale again (7) 19    Understanding one? (6) 22    Analog ____ could be ‘slo-mo’, managed badly? (6) 24    A state surrounded by empty

Spectator competition winners: Mrs Malaprop’s Julius Caesar

In Competition No. 3327 you were invited to submit a rough resumé of the plot of a Shakespeare play such as might have been attemptedby a well-known fictional character of your choice. Literary sleuths featured prominently in the entry, with Poirot, Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes all making eye-catching appearances. A commendation to George Simmers for Professor McGonagall’s take on Macbeth and to John O’Byrne, who also gave us the Scottish Play, but through the eyes of Molly Bloom. The winners nab £25. Prince Hamlet is a melankoly dane who rite his girlfrend soppy poetry, chiz. He hav been played by many grate british actors from shaxpeere’s time to the

Montenegro’s revenge

Before the seventh round of the European Team Championship in Montenegro, I woke with a peculiar malaise I could not explain. Answer soon came, in an alarming salvo of diarrhoea. My hopes for an easy ride in my game against the German grandmaster Alexander Donchenko did not last long, and I landed in a tenable but thankless middlegame where all the winning chances lay with my young opponent. I clung on for a draw after 52 moves, shivering through the game in spite of ample layers of clothing. Straight after, I crawled into bed and fell asleep. That match, which we tied 2-2 against the eventual silver medallists, was played on

Stockton, Cleverly and scatological etymology

There’s a street in the City of London called Sherborne Lane. In the Middle Ages it was known as Shitteborwelane [Shitborough Lane] or Shitheburnlane. We philologists are accustomed to discussing vocabulary that is taboo because of its sexual or scatological references, and this place name is not rare in depending on a word that ‘is not generally acceptable in more formal contexts’, according to the OED. The House of Commons is a context more formal than most. But last week James Cleverly, the Home Secretary, was accused of calling out, ‘Because it’s a shithole’ in answer to Alex Cunningham, the Labour MP for Stockton North, who had asked why 34

Dear Mary: Help! My stepmother uses fabric conditioner

Q. My father missed my mother so much after 50 years together that, following her death, he married again. I make every effort with my new stepmother but we have nothing in common. To be frank, common is the operative word. What I really mind is that when he and I meet alone for our weekly lunches, this distinguished man now reeks of the fabric conditioner with which she washes his clothes. He lost his sense of smell years ago so has no idea what he smells like. How can I tell her that in the world into which she has married, fabric conditioner is never used? – Name and

Rory Sutherland

Cryptic crosswords are hard – but so is life

As regular readers will know, I am an inveterate fan of cryptic crosswords. At the everyday level, they are the perfect way to kill 20-50 minutes of otherwise boring time. There is a refined elegance to clue-setting: the best are little works of art. Crossword-solving also cultivates the useful talent of looking beneath the clue’s explicit surface meaning to the meaning lurking beneath – which trains solvers in the essential creative act of seeing the same thing from different perspectives. Cryptic crosswords instil the very important idea that problem-solving is rarely linear But there is perhaps something even more valuable about the habit. There are many ways of solving any given

Charles Moore

The importance of remembering the Holodomor

At the end of last week, the Holodomor was commemorated in Britain. There was a service at Westminster Abbey. But the chief point to notice is that no important British government or opposition representatives appeared. Nor, with the honourable exception of Stephen Fry, did any of the celebrities who infest causes such as ‘Free Palestine’. Almost everyone knows, thank goodness, what the Holocaust was. But even now, although Vladimir Putin is trying a small-scale repeat, have most people heard of the Holodomor? (If you haven’t, read Anne Applebaum’s astonishing Red Famine.) It was the largely deliberate starvation of about four million Ukrainians by Stalin in 1932-33, bringing death at a

Toby Young

Even Tommy Robinson has the right to protest

I was at the march against antiSemitism in London on Sunday, but did not witness the arrest of Tommy Robinson. I’m thankful for that because I wouldn’t have known how to react in my capacity as head of the Free Speech Union. Whether the Met was right to arrest him (and subsequently charge him) requires careful thought and the fact that the answer isn’t obvious makes me sympathise with the operational commander who had to make a decision. Robinson is far from being an anti-Semite but he and his followers can appear menacing My gut says it was an abuse of police powers. Section 35 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime

Portrait of the week: Elgin Marbles madness, Israel/Hamas ceasefire and Oscar Pistorius freed

Home Net migration reached a record 745,000 last year, the Office for National Statistics said, 139,000 higher than the 606,000 it had previously given. Robert Jenrick, the minister for immigration, was reported to be ‘pressuring’ No. 10 with ideas for cutting immigration, such as by making a minimum salary of £35,000 a requirement for a work visa. Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, had agreed with Suella Braverman, when she was home secretary, to raise the salary requirement to £40,000, according to a copy of their agreement seen by the Telegraph. Eight small boats carried 364 migrants to England on 26 November. Caolan Gormley, 26, from Co. Tyrone, was found guilty at the