Coming in from the pouring rain, I make my way to the office on the eighth floor of City Hall. With its curving windows, many books and bust of Pericles tucked away in a corner, it reminds me both of a classroom and the cockpit of a spacecraft. Its occupant is waiting for me, looking a little crumpled but less dishevelled than I had expected. He greets me very pleasantly but this is what I’m thinking.
In the old Death Strip between East and West Berlin, which runs through the centre of the city, there is a graveyard full of German war heroes and a few war criminals too. From the Red Baron to Reinhard Heydrich, the best and worst of the German military are buried here. There’s also a mass grave full of civilians, killed by Allied air raids, and a memorial to the 136 East Berliners who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall — which ran through this cemetery.
What’s up with Sir Michael Wilshaw? The chief schools inspector was once seen as a pillar of common sense and an enthusiastic partner of Michael Gove in pragmatic schools reform. Now, he stands accused of trying to enforce a particularly toxic form of political correctness as his inspectors mark down a succession of rural English schools for being insufficiently multicultural — or as some newspapers inevitably framed it, for being ‘too white’.
Some songs are hits — No. 1 for a couple of weeks. Some songs are standards — they endure decade after decade. And a few very rare songs reach way beyond either category, to embed themselves so deeply in the collective consciousness they become part of the soundtrack of society. They start off the same as all the other numbers, written for a show or a movie, a singer or an event, but they float free of the writer, they outlast the singer, transcend the movie, change the event.
‘So were you levitating with rage by the end?’ I asked her. She — a veteran of Bletchley Park — and I were discussing The Imitation Game, the new film about the mathematician and code--breaker Alan Turing, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and a host of historical inaccuracies. But she remained sanguine: ‘Not at all, I really enjoyed it a lot. A little dramatic licence here and there, but that’s what you get with films.
Alex Salmond is losing his voice but that’s not going to stop him from talking — I doubt that anything would, or could. I meet him in the Savoy, after The Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year Awards (he won top gong) and he orders a hot toddy — setting out the ingredients just in case the Savoy Hotel is too English to know how to make one.
No one talking to Scotland’s former first minister today would have any idea that his political dream was clearly rejected by Scottish voters just three months ago.
She took the call herself the night the Islamic State came into Mosul. ‘Convert or leave or you’ll be killed,’ she was told. The callers, identifying themselves as Isis members, knew the household was Christian because her husband worked as a priest in the city. They fled that night.
Like many of their Christian neighbours they sought refuge in the monastery of St Matthew. But Isis took that over, tore down the Cross, smashed all Cross-decorated windows, used it for their own prayers and flew their black flag on top of the church.
The response to the Ukip surge has reached the panic stage. Just as British business and academia chorused the economic benefits of Union in the final stages of the Scottish referendum campaign, now their refrain is of the economic benefits of immigration. A letter from ten chief executives in the Financial Times pronounced that unimpeded immigration from Eastern Europe is highly valuable. The previous week economists estimated that immigration from Eastern Europe had contributed £20 billion net in taxes.
When it comes to the battle of ideas, it’s often said that the right won the economic argument and the left won the cultural one. But consider the case of the radical lesbian with the deluxe dildo I met at a north London squat party in the early 1980s. We were having an argument about sexual politics. She was drunk and trying to be provocative when she pointed the dildo at me and declared, ‘You lot are finished.
So, Christmas carols — they haven’t really gone away, but we don’t sing them as much as we used to. We aren’t, in general, much good at massed singing these days. Look around you at a church wedding when it’s time for a hymn and watch the congregation standing in mute embarrassment, the only sound coming from the organ and the choir (if there is one). That’s partly because hymns nowadays are known only to churchgoers, and they are in a minority; but it’s also inhibition.
Status anxiety columnist
About 15 years ago, when I was single and living in New York, I acquired what I can only describe as a stalker. A woman took exception to a newspaper article I’d written and started bombarding me with emails. For about a year, she sent me three or four emails a day, demanding a reply. In one of these emails she claimed to be a columnist for a magazine called Chest Monthly, and that piqued my interest.
Illustrated by Carolyn Gowdy
The early Christmas lunch party had been Bunny Wedgewood’s idea. But Bunny had pulled out the day before, having been sectioned by her daughter and son-in-law. Notification came from Bunny herself, apparently calling from a phone box in the cafeteria of the psychiatric wing of Leicester General Hospital. Bunny claimed to have been admitted ‘just for Christmas and the worst of the winter’ and expected to be home — albeit on tablets — by Shrove Tuesday.
You will see, alas, that all of this is true.
One morning, I awoke in a feather bed in a room in a tavern and reached, as I always did, for my purse of gold, but it was not there. I had been travelling on business for many months and weeks with only my faithful coachman Joseph for company. Wherever I stayed, I would put the purse of golden coins by my pillow. Each night it was the last thing that I touched, and the first thing I touched in the morning.
It seems as though I have just been on some grand tour of the absurd. It helps that I work in fashion, quite possibly the most absurd of all industries. And the most magnificent display of this absurdity has reached London: the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Planes have touched down and disgorged their precious cargo, the ‘Angels’ (they’re more than just models, remember), who bounced onto British soil, all glossy and shiny and pristine.
A few days ago I went truffle hunting in Piedmont. It’s been a bumper year for white truffles in northern Italy — the best ever, according to some experts — thanks to climate change and an exceptionally wet summer. My guide was a brilliantly sharp-eyed Italian, Mario, whose dog Rex did the snuffling. Mario told me that dogs are better trufflers than pigs because pigs often eat the truffles before you can get your hands on them.
The trouble with going on an American book tour is that I know it’s going to play havoc with my diet. People on diets can very quickly become diet bores, but I am unrepentant: I know the calorie content of most things and, for instance, how long it takes to burn off a croissant. Not that I eat croissants any more, of course. (We dieters can be tremendously smug.) America is a challenge, though, because all their food is injected with corn syrup.
Christmas will be a very warm occasion for me. I’ll be spending it with the Massonneaus — my family — as I do every year. It will be five brothers and sisters, gathered around our mother in our childhood home, a council house that, for us, felt like a palace when we first moved in. As always, our mother will try very hard for everything to be perfect, from the meal to the mountains of presents. With 12 grandchildren, who are all at an age to bring around a special someone or a ‘fiancée’, it usually becomes quite boisterous.
The nicest day of the year was spent at Charleston in May. The Sussex farmhouse shared by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell looked splendid in the streaming sunshine. As a dramatist, I’ve idly disparaged bald and white-haired audiences. But as soon as I started speaking at the literary festival, I realised that everyone in panama hats and cardigans was way to the left of me. The first question was about my local childhood, and I said that growing up so close to the Channel meant that stories of people like Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf sitting on English lawns and hearing the sound of battle in the first world war from across the water had always moved me.
Blue and white Christmas lights twinkle over the shops near my apartment in Beirut’s Christian quarter; pricy boutiques display elaborate nativity scenes. But people are having trouble getting into the festive mood. ‘Do you think the war will come here?’ asks my landlady nervously, not for the first time. There is no rush to battle, no electric charge in the air, just a rather depressed feeling among Lebanese that their country can no longer escape the violence over the border in Syria.
I have been having my vault done over. Not, as you might think, the family strong room, but the place beneath the pavement — the former coal cellar — pertaining to an early 19th-century London house. The vault opens onto the area — mine is the last generation to know that that is what you call the open sunken space between the basement and the pavement — and has been given the latest damp-proof treatment, plus shelving and smart lighting, so that I can use it for storage.
Getting here took a long time. First a flight to Seattle, then a connection to Fairbanks, followed by a coach to Coldfoot Camp and a final stage by minibus. It’s long after midnight and I’m shivering outside a snow-covered lodge in Wiseman, Alaska (population: 14), two hours north of the Arctic Circle, wrenching my tripod so the camera points straight upwards and trying like a fool to capture what essentially cannot be captured.