When Fred Goodwin was looking for a marketing slogan in the boom years, he alighted on a simple phrase which encapsulated the ‘can-do’ philosophy of the bank he ran. RBS would, promised the adverts, ‘Make It Happen’. Goodwin and his colleagues made it happen, though not quite in the way they intended.
They turned RBS into a financial monster, the world’s biggest bank, with assets of £1.9 trillion. By 2008 it had become so large and so exposed that if boom ever turned to bust the bank (and the rest of us) would be buggered.
If Cyril Northcote Parkinson was still around he would devise a law for party political conferences: that the significance of what is discussed in the conference centre is inversely proportional to the difficulty of getting in. Time was, when politicians stayed in shabby hotels in Blackpool and wandered along the seafront to the Winter Gardens to debate with constituency members, that conferences meant something. Over the next three weeks anyone visiting Glasgow, Manchester or Brighton, even if not involved in a party conference, will be inconvenienced by a security buffer which resembles the former green zone in Baghdad.
We arrive at the tiny Greek island of Sikinos on a blustery day, making landing rather difficult. Is there transport to take us to the extraordinary, now deconsecrated, perhaps 6th-century church of Episkopi inside a 3rd century AD Roman mausoleum/temple? The mayor appears: yes, we can use the island’s one bus, and off we go to the magnificent site miles from nowhere. A bonus too: the tiny 14th-century monastery next door is being restored, wall paintings and all.
‘You owe me an apology,’ Richard Dawkins informs me. It is a bright Oxford morning and we are sitting in his home. His wife has just made me coffee and I have met their new puppies. I am here to discuss a new book of his, but he is smarting from a disobliging reference to him in a recent one of mine. That, and an earlier encounter I wrote about here, have clearly rankled. I try a very limited apology. But it does strike me that Dawkins is more easily bruised than one might have imagined.
News that the Syrian regime has agreed to hand in its arsenal of chemical weapons is a great relief to Lebanon. For the past few weeks we have been wandering around like inmates on death row, fearing that a US-led strike would ignite a potentially apocalyptic conflict between Hezbollah and Israel or at the very least provoke a prolonged internal Shia-Sunni terror campaign. This was no idle fear. The salvos fired at the end of August brought back memories of the darkest days of the civil war.
‘It’s about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.’
— David Cameron, 27 August
‘The chemical massacre in Damascus cannot and must not go unpunished.’
— François Hollande, 30 August
‘We lead with the belief that right makes might, not the other way around.’
— Barack Obama, 31 August
In their speech, in their manner and in their choice of language, the American President, the French President and the British Prime Minister have been impeccably clear about their motivations for military intervention in Syria.
I am in a yurt, talking about death. Everyone is seated in a circle, and I am the next-to-last person to share. The last of the summer sun is shining through the entrance. At one end is a display coffin of biodegradable willow — there’s also tea and coffee, and coffin-shaped biscuits with skeleton-shaped icing.
‘I am a reporter,’ I say. ‘I’ve come to cover this event. But don’t worry, I won’t report what you share in this yurt.
You know what the real problem with Nigel Farage is? It’s not his politics, for they are a matter of personal taste. No, it’s something more objective. His name. And not that improbable surname, either, the one that makes him sound like a Bond villain. It’s the Nigel.
There’s a passage in Julian Barnes’s novel Talking It Over which summarises the problem nicely. One of the characters, Oliver, used to be called Nigel until he changed his name by deed poll.