The English love a story of posh people behaving badly, especially one that involves sex, drugs or drink — preferably all three at once — in some stately home or Mayfair pad. In 1963, following the Profumo scandal (yes, the one involving Christine Keeler) the nation was gripped by tales of sex parties involving prostitutes, pimps, peers and cabinet ministers. And then there was the infamous photograph of the Duchess of Argyll with something in her mouth that definitely wasn’t a silver spoon.
Food shortages, diabetics going without insulin, outbreaks of salmonella and swine flu: a no-deal Brexit has become a dystopia of the imagination that gives even the Old Testament a run for its money. To lend it extra credence, the doomsayers are not muttering men with long white beards but business leaders and figures from respectable-sounding thinktanks.
Yet in just 11 weeks’ time, a no-deal Brexit could become a reality.
They don’t like to use the ‘Q’ word in counter-terrorism. It’s a bit like blurting out the name of the Scottish Play in a theatre. At Christmas parties, members of the security agencies insisted they had never been busier but once the year had turned and they were no longer tempting fate, they were prepared to admit that 2018 was a bit ‘quieter’. There were, for instance, far fewer arrests for ‘attack planning’, as opposed to downloading or sharing instructional and propaganda material.
France’s literary event of the year took place this week with the publication of Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Serotonin. Named after the brain chemical that regulates mood, his seventh novel has been described by one French newspaper as ‘prophesying the yellow vest movement’.
The critics have lavished praise and the public are plucking it from the shelves. The initial print run was 320,000, which is quite something given that the average run for a novel in France is 5,000 copies.
If you were looking for an international drugs empire, Downham Market would not be the first place you’d think of. With a population of around 10,000, this sleepy Fenland town is probably about as typical as they come — typical, that is, apart from the smell.
It was around two years ago that residents first noticed it: a distinctive pungent scent which seemed to hang on the wind before eventually engulfing the town for several days.
At the height of the Cold War, as the West faced off against Red China and the Soviet Union, people used to joke that optimists learnt Russian while pessimists learnt Chinese. Today, the debate about which of these two great powers represents the biggest threat to our way of life is once again in full swing — though with new battle lines. And it’s not clear that Britain knows what to make of it all.
As I write, my cats and a visitor from the next street are hammering into their food, at nearly £5 a box. Once they only ate greens to make themselves vomit, but now they relish food labelled, ‘garden fresh’, containing carrots, pumpkin and pulses, plus ‘prebiotics to aid digestion’.
I watch them eat and wonder how cats have evolved so quickly from savage carnivores into something more like middle-class ladies getting their five a day.
‘Yes, it’s here!’ says the sign above the English épicerie in Paris. ‘Yes, at last,’ thinks the starved expat wandering in a desert of croissants, magret de canard and monts blancs. Now for some real food: Fray Bentos pies, Quaker Oats, Fentimans lemonade, HP Sauce, Marmite, Tetley’s, Twinings, Dorset cereals, Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut, Altoids mints and Macsween haggis. As a sop to Americans: Pop-Tarts, Lucky Charms, Aunt Jemima’s pancakes and marshmallow fluff in a jar.