After seeing the Dalai Lama receive an award at St Paul’s Cathedral, I thought I’d look in at some secondhand bookshops around the British Museum on my walk home. They had all gone.
Gone the neat shop in Museum Street where I bought David Knowles’s Great Historical Enterprises; gone the untidy shop in Coptic Street where I first bought a Cresset Press edition of Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
‘Islam, politics, economics — choose two’ is a great line, said by one of my Turkish students, and it would make a good exam question. Tayyip (the name means ‘very clean’ in Arabic — cf. ritual washing) Erdogan (meaning ‘strong hawk’, a Turkish nationalist reference) came to power in 2002 with a very good press. This was to be what the world wanted — a Muslim version of German or Italian Christian Democracy — and for years he gave it that.
Shakespeare took it a little far in Henry IV, Part II, when Dick the Butcher said, ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers.’ Chris Grayling hasn’t made the same proposal but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, listening to the howls of anguish and indignation coming from the Inns of Court. Grayling, the first non-lawyer to be made Lord Chancellor since the 17th century, has simply said he wants to make some savings in the legal aid bill.
‘All of them should have been very happy,’ Robert A. Heinlein begins his 1942 novel Beyond This Horizon. The material problem has been solved on this future earth, poverty and disease have been eradicated, work is optional. And yet parts of the citizenry are not enthusiastic. Some are bored, others are preparing a revolt. Why should that be, in such a utopian world?
A similar puzzlement has been the dominant reaction from commentators after riots broke out and cars and buildings were burned in heavily immigrant-populated suburbs of Stockholm in late May.
Have you heard? Do you know? Are you, as they say, ‘in the loop’? When the Mail on Sunday said a ‘sensational affair’ between ‘high profile figures’ close to Cameron had ‘rocked’ No. 10, did you have the faintest idea what it was talking about?
I did, but then I’m a journalist. Friends in the lobby filled me in on a story which had been doing the rounds for months. I even know which law stopped the Mail on Sunday following the basics of journalism and giving its readers the ‘whos’, ‘whats’, ‘whens’, ‘whys’ and ‘hows’.
How did a blind Chinese dissident scale the walls of his house while under house arrest, evade government surveillance, travel hundreds of miles to Beijing, seek asylum in the American embassy and in the process shine attention on a horror the world has grown used to? The questions for Chen Guangcheng are legion. Last week I met up with him in London.
Chen, who is 41, has been blind since childhood and wears smart dark glasses.
Few people under the age of 65 will have heard of the cartoonist Timothy Birdsall, who died 50 years ago on 10 June 1963, having produced his finest work in the last months of his life here in The Spectator and in Private Eye. But had his career not been cut cruelly short by leukaemia at the age of only 27, he would today be revered as one of the outstanding cartoonists of our time.
Tim was part of that talented late-1950s Cambridge generation, along with a galaxy of others later to become famous, from Peter Cook to Ian McKellen.