My colleagues at the commercial and chancery bar are all at their chalets in Gstaad, funded by the endless fees from Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and the family bar are out en famille in Mustique, awaiting the festive fallout — there’s something about turkey, port and the Queen’s Speech that pulls marriages apart like a pound-shop cracker, and divorce doesn’t come cheap.
But for we poor criminal hacks, it’s business as usual: crime never sleeps, and never less so than when Santa Claus is coming to town.
Santa Claus ate Father Christmas. It happened quite suddenly. Well, it took about a decade, but that’s suddenly in cultural terms. Over the course of the 1870s the venerable British figure of Father Christmas was consumed by an American interloper.
Father Christmas (first recorded in the 14th century) was the English personification of Christmas. Just as Jack Frost is a personification of the cold and the Easter Bunny is a rabbitification of Easter, so Father Christmas stood for Christmas.
There have been two revolutions in television during my lifetime. The first happened in 1975 when Sony launched its Betamax video system — which allowed viewers to record shows and see them when they wanted. Of course, Betamax was found to be clunky and unreliable and it was soon replaced by VHS but, without realising it, the networks had lost control of their audience. No longer would we watch the films they wanted us to watch when they wanted us to watch them.
In the early 1990s, after the shock of the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, I began to do some research among those who condemned him, and learned that a strange thing was happening among young British Muslim men and women. I first wrote about this strange thing in my novel The Black Album, which concerns a young man who comes to London from the provinces to study and finds himself caught between the sex-and-ecstasy-stimulated hedonism of the late 1980s and the nascent fundamentalist movement.
SpeccieLeaks presents: Transcript of private meeting between President Trump and President Putin, 14 February 2017, Andreyevsky Hall, Grand Kremlin Palace
PUTIN: So how are you liking Russia?
TRUMP: Fabulous. Amazing. And this room — incredible. You have beautiful taste, my friend. Beautiful.
PUTIN: You like gold?
TRUMP: Very much. We used a tremendous amount of gold in the Trump Tower.
PUTIN: Yes, it’s something.
The Prime Minister’s office is a small, unimpressive room in 10 Downing Street with miserable views and unexceptional furniture. Since moving in, Theresa May has spruced it up — but only a little. There is now a large glass meeting table; her predecessor preferred to chat on the sofas. She has also delved into the government art collection to retrieve two pictures of Oxford, where she honed her interest in politics and met Philip, her husband.
Trying to write the first draft of history on the EU referendum and the leader-ship mess that followed had both its dramatic and its comic elements. My phone never stopped ringing with Eurosceptics keen to tell me why their contribution to a meeting that had previously escaped my notice was the decisive factor in securing victory. But when a vote is so close — 52 per cent to 48 per cent — then it would not have taken much to push the result the other way.
Few 20th-century historians doubted that the 1917 Russian revolution was one of the most influential events of their time, indeed of all time. As the centenary commemoration approaches, however, it seems remarkable how far and how fast the ideology that inspired Lenin and millions of his worldwide followers has receded in significance. Many are the imperfections of capitalism, but almost nobody outside Jeremy Corbyn’s office any longer supposes that communism, least of all the old Soviet brand, offers a credible alternative.
In the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge, here, in no particular order, are my current irritants:
• Paddy Ashdown
• Lady (Shami) Chakrabarti of Kennington
• First Minister Nicola Sturrrgeon
• Brussels grands fromages Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt and Monsieur Tipsy Jean-Claude Juncker
• Three out of five Newsnight discussions
• Dance judge Len Goodman (those teeth are whistling again, Len)
• Donald Trump’s hand gestures
• Sir Philip Green
• Lady Green and that dog of hers
• Nicky Morgan
• Business Secretary Greg Clark, the cabinet’s fruity-voiced answer to Clifford the Listerine dragon
• Benedict Cumberbatch
• Caitlin Moran
• The National Secular Society
• Ukip braggart Raheem Kassam
• Diane Abbott, particularly when she closes her eyes while speaking
• Advertising man Sir Martin ‘£43 million a year’ Sorrell
• Anti-press windbag Evan Harris
• Hugh Grant
• Labour chief whip Nick Brown
• Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood
• Telly scientist Prof Brian Cox
• Gary Lineker
• James Purnell, the former Labour culture secretary who now poses as a non-partisan BBC radio boss
• Emily Thornberry QC MP
• Political aide Rohan Silva, who ‘became too big for No.
When I come home from work and stick my key in the door, there is a pitter-patter of tiny feet as my eight-year-old twin boys run up to me and shout: ‘Paris St-Germain won 3-1! First he scored, then he missed, then…’ They are suffering from a harmless case of sports geekery. I had it myself as a child, and have gone on to hold down a job, albeit in the dying industry of journalism. The only difference is that as a child I wasn’t encouraged to bore my dad with my findings, because helicopter parenting hadn’t been invented yet.
If only I’d known. If only I’d foreseen that the teenage classmate who strode through our school gates every morning, rolled-up Daily Telegraph tucked incongruously (and insouciantly) under one arm, dark leather trench-coat flapping rhythmically in sympathy with the long, swaying black crows-wings of shoulder-length hair, square-heeled boots clicking and clacking their way into morning assembly… if I’d somehow intuited, as I say, that this lanky 15-year-old with the questing, beaky nose and rimless glasses, this proto-goth, would one day be Chancellor of the Exchequer…
Well, actually, I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised.
Now that almost six months have passed since the EU referendum, might it be time for old enemies to find common ground? Matthew Parris and Matt Ridley, two of the most eloquent voices on either side of the campaign, meet in the offices of The Spectator to find out.
MATTHEW PARRIS: Catastrophe has not engulfed us yet, it’s true. But I feel worse since the result, rather than better. I thought that, as in all hard-fought campaigns, you get terribly wound up and depressed when you lose.
Charlie Zailer wasn’t sure if she’d won or lost. On the victory side of the equation, she’d managed to avoid spending Christmas Day with her sister, and she’d successfully blamed it on work. Her ‘Sorry, but I have to go in for at least a few hours’, delivered in a tone that suggested it was the fault of someone intransigent in a position of authority, had been accepted without question.
On the defeat side, here she was: at work, by choice, with a cold steak-and-potato pasty in her bag as a Christmas dinner substitute, struggling to communicate with a stranger who’d judged her to be not worth speaking to.
Archbishop of Canterbury
There have been lots of wonderful answers to prayer over many years, including recently. One I remember was as a 15-year-old sitting in chapel with the prospect of three frightening tests that day, for which I had done no preparation, and praying that if I got through it then I would do anything for God. I did get through and did nothing about it, except forget about God.
Julia should not have come to the wedding. That much was clear as soon as she arrived. Late, she was, and massive in belly. Her hat festooned with tropical fruit; her dress — hideously colourful. She made the hinges shriek on the great church door and winced, as it slammed shut, with a shudder. Puffing out her cheeks, she waddled slowly towards the nearest pew. She had a fist jammed into the small of her back, as if she were expecting to give birth at any moment.
It’s weird being friends with someone who suddenly becomes President of the United States, not least for the reflected glory that suddenly rains down on one’s own far less powerful cranium. I was roundly ridiculed by numerous high-profile journalists and celebrities for predicting Donald Trump’s victory throughout his 16-month campaign. Now, many of those same egg-faced mockers slither up at festive parties to whisper a variant of: ‘Any chance you could put a good word in for me with Donald?’ To which my preferred response is to place a patronising hand on their shoulder and say: ‘It’s Mr President-elect Trump to you.
I was drinking in the bar of Manhattan’s Nomad Hotel when in snuck The Most Seen Human Ever To Have Lived. This is an old puzzle: who is the most ‘observed in the flesh’ individual in history? Since we’re discounting depictions (paintings, photographs, films), it has to be someone alive in the jet age with a sustained international career and multi-generational appeal. John Paul II — who visited 129 countries — is a contender as, to a lesser extent, are Billy Graham, the Queen, Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
The morning is cold and dark but the orchard is thronged with birds. Moorhens dash from one side to the other; woodpeckers drill the damp ground for worms; fieldfares bounce from hawthorn hedge to apple tree and back again; magpies terrorise all of them. They freeze when the buzzard comes over until, crows and blackbirds having risen up to harass it, its great wings float it away. The red kites are a different matter.
Although drinking excessive levels of alcohol is up there with Olympic cycling and democracy as things the British excel at, the same cannot be said for dealing with the aftermath. Over the festive season we splash more than £2 billion on trips to the pub as punters take exhortations to have a merry Christmas a bit too literally. But our subsequent hangovers cost the economy almost £260 million through sick days and a lack of productivity.