Anyone could see that Joe Biden veered off-script during his big speech in Poland. ‘For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,’ he said of Vladimir Putin, which sounded a lot like a cry for regime change. Luckily for him, though, and perhaps for world peace, Leon Panetta, a former secretary of defence under Barack Obama, was on hand to explain the comment away: ‘I happen to think that Joe Biden – you know, he’s Irish – really has a great deal of compassion when he sees that people are suffering.
For some it was the taped-off park benches, or the sight of police officers handing out fixed penalty notices to sunbathers. For others it was the sheer numbers of deaths being reported in inner boroughs. London in the spring of 2020 was definitely not the place to be. As with other world cities, it faced what seemed an existential crisis. The streets quickly drained of people, and those who could fled to second homes in the country.
Early this year, five dead herring gulls were discovered on a Cornish beach, and when tested it was found they had bird flu. This should have provoked serious concern: these were the first gulls to be found carrying bird flu in Britain. But because of the war and because we’re sick of epidemics, it was largely ignored.
The dead gulls matter because gulls live among us. Some 75 per cent of our herring gulls are now urban.
One small, deadly incident in the Ukrainian war proved memorable because it involved the ordinary things of life. A mother and two children trying to leave the town of Irpin on foot on 6 March died from Russian shelling. Their suitcases fell beside them and, miserably, a pet dog carrier. They lay on an ordinary road that could be in Surrey, on the steps of a memorial to Soviet dead from the second world war.
That spot is opposite a little row of bells under a tiled roof in the grounds of the Ukrainian Orthodox church of St George.
For the Falkland islanders, the war in Ukraine brings back haunting memories of their own trauma four decades ago. Having themselves experienced a barbaric invasion by a big bully next door, they understand all too well what the people of Ukraine are going through.
‘I still feel that gun in my back,’ one islander told me recently, describing the day Argentine troops landed on Pebble Island and brutally rounded up the locals.
When Will Smith strode to the stage and slapped Chris Rock, I was surprised by how many of my friends thought the violence had been staged to rescue the Academy Awards from its years-long ratings decline. I instantly recognised it as authentic rage, not because I know anything about Hollywood or Will Smith, but because I witness similar ugliness so frequently on the New York City subway. For me, Smith’s outburst was shockingly familiar – emblematic of a simmering, pre-volcanic atmosphere in the country that no one seems to be examining or attempting to explain.
If you’ve heard of Dmitry Firtash, the odds are you’ll have the impression of a deeply controversial man. He was arrested in Austria in 2014 at the US government’s request on charges of ‘conspiracy to bribe’ in India. A warrant was then issued for his arrest in Spain. Last year, Firtash was sanctioned by Ukraine over claims that he was selling titanium products to the Russian military. In America, he has been called ‘Ukraine’s most wanted’.
On the day before my seventh birthday, which I spent at my grandma’s in Yorkshire, a young man named Raymond Jones walked into North End Music Stores in Liverpool and asked the guy behind the counter for a record on which an obscure local group called the Beatles provided the backing track for a song titled ‘My Bonnie’. The guy behind the counter was the shop’s manager and the son of its owner. His name was Brian Epstein, and as a restless budding entrepreneur he felt he should be alert to what was going on around him.
A crisp sandwich is a private and personal endeavour. In my experience (and I have considerable experience in this particular area) it is usually eaten alone in the kitchen, often over the sink. It is deliberately unsophisticated, the ultimate fast food: simple, salty, satisfying. It is a snack that speaks of the person you are, rather than the person you want to be.
I firmly believe that no food should be a guilty pleasure, but I’ll concede that crisps sandwiched between two heavily buttered slices of bread does not scream nutritional balance.