Remember the Heads Together campaign? It was back in 2017. Prince William, his wife Kate and his brother Prince Harry, who’d recently begun dating a conspicuously woke actress called Meghan Markle, launched a charitable endeavour to raise awareness about mental health. The princes gave interviews in which they ‘opened up’ about their struggles. Such public emoting made fuddy-duddy monarchists nervous, yet a new generation of royal PR operatives and suck-ups saw the future.
The words pouring on Meghan’s head are written for a witch, because that is the natural progress of the story. The royal family are our national myth and sacrifice: our small flesh gods, without whom we would have to have a serious political system requiring serious engagement, instead of which we have this. Interlopers are sanctified if they comply and demonised if they don’t. It is a sort of trial by ordeal, it’s-a-royal-knockout — how much can you take? All interlopers get it — Prince Philip was once considered a dangerous moderniser — but the women have it worse.
Maybe I missed something here. Or maybe I am just completely naive. But why is it racist to ponder what the skin colour of a new baby will be?
According to most of the American and British media, post the Harry and Meghan interview, it absolutely is racist. It’s horrendous. Evil. Bigoted. Especially so in the US (a country where barely over 10 per cent of the married population is actually inter-racial). But these are generally the views of people who don’t actually know what they are talking about.
My book on Dante Alighieri was due to come out in Chinese translation later this year, but first I had to consent to sizeable cuts. Even by the standards of other authoritarian states the Beijing censors struck me as overzealous. It seems odd that the medieval Italian poet could cause such unease among modern-day totalitarians. A sanitised Chinese communist version of my book did not sit well with the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death in 1321, and in the end I withheld permission.
There is a joke going around Poland at the moment which encapsulates the national character perfectly. A German is told he has to have the Covid vaccine. He is uncertain. ‘It’s an order,’ the doctor says, and so he agrees. A British man is told the same. He wavers. ‘Do it for Queen and country,’ the doctor says. He agrees. A French man is told ‘It’s the fashionable thing to do’, and he agrees, too. Finally, a Pole has his turn.
Like 98.3 per cent of humanity, I’ve spent the past 12 months reading dubiously precise statistics, staring listlessly into space for hours on end, and, most poignantly, wondering if I am an extra in a movie about a pandemic. This last intuition only worsened when I watched Contagion — the 2011 Kate Winslet/Gwyneth Paltrow pandemic movie — and it felt like I was simply watching the TV news (again), right down to the scenes of giant stadiums ominously filled with empty hospital beds.
As I watched the Duchess of Sussex give her extended acceptance speech for Best Performance As A Victim — played as a cross between Bambi and Beth from Little Women — my overwhelming feeling was of disappointment. Readers may recall that I once wrote long and loopy love letters to her in this very magazine, embarrassing in their unctuousness — ‘Meghan Markle has rescued her prince!’ — but I went off her when her bid for secular sainthood started.
Like a tongue searching for an absent tooth, I keep wondering if I’m missing anything from my two decades as a lobby hack. Friends, of course, and perhaps the vast, grey field of sloping slate as seen from the Times’s parliamentary office. That empty and silent space, the roof of Westminster Hall, seemed austere and indifferent, a mental refuge from the babble beneath and within. The opposite aspect, towards the crumbling guts of the Palace of Westminster, elicits more complicated memories.
This week was the tenth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the country. It, along with the tsunami it triggered, claimed an estimated 19,000 lives. I was walking in the Shibuya district of Tokyo when the quake knocked me off my feet. I recall being first puzzled (why am I falling?); then awestruck, as I glanced up at a thin concrete ‘pencil’ building swaying gently like a flower in the breeze.
There’s an unwritten rule in newspaper journalism that any story about egrets must have one of two headlines. Either ‘no egrets’ if numbers are dropping or ‘egrets, we’ve had a few’ if they are booming. At the moment, fortunately, it’s the latter.
The little egret (egretta garzetta) can be seen as something of a trailblazer. The first only nested successfully in England as recently as 1997, on Brownsea Island in Dorset, and there are now up to 1,000 pairs in the country, according to the RSPB.