It’s 9.30 a.m. on a Friday and David Cameron is about to head for his Oxfordshire constituency and work from home. This is precisely the habit that his Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, is trying to beat out of the civil service, but the Prime Minister has a reasonable claim to some downtime. In the past five days he has met 150 businessmen and toured four Chinese cities. This morning, he has paid a visit to Tech City, London’s answer to Silicon Valley, and travelled to South Africa House to pass on his condolences following Nelson Mandela’s death.
In chess you see everything. Every piece of information you need is available on the board, so what is being tested during a game is your ability to process all that information. In politics things are different: we never have all the information. People often compare politics to chess, but in fact politics is more like a game of cards, poker perhaps, in which winning means relying on guts, instincts and strength.
Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud are likely to go down together in art history. If the link had not already been set in cement, it certainly became so at Christie’s New York last month, when Bacon’s ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ (1969), a three-part portrait of his friend and colleague, went for $142.4 million or a whisker less than £90 million, thus becoming the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.
Sir Peregrine Worsthorne isn’t much looking forward to his 90th birthday on 22 December. ‘It’s awful,’ he cries. ‘It makes me so angry Diana Athill writing about the joys of old age. My eyes, teeth, heart — everything starts to go. Keeping alive becomes a full-time job. I’m so lucky to have a much younger wife. If I was on my own, I’d crumble. But as they say, it’s better than the alternative.’
Worsthorne is speaking in the high Gothic drawing room of the old rectory in Hedgerley, Buckinghamshire, where he lives with his second wife, the architectural writer Lucy Lambton.
It is hard to believe that at one time nearly the whole of the Middle East and much of north Africa were predominantly Christian. Think of the great Christian cities such as Alexandria, Damascus, Edessa, Constantinople and Carthage. Monasticism, the great civilising force, in both east and west, took its rise to the dusty end of the Mediterranean and some of the church’s greatest theologians came from there.
As the principal cook in our household, I take the view that the Christmas Day cook should not be left isolated in the kitchen slaving over the hot stove whilst everyone else is making merry in the sitting room. The true purpose of Christmas can be served at Midnight Mass the night before, and the old pagan midwinter feast can be celebrated on Christmas Day, cooks and diners all together.
So to hell with the messy business of basting turkeys or draining fat off geese.
The European statesmen who went to war in 1914 were extremely well-educated men. Churchill staggered Roosevelt as he could quote reams of quite obscure poetry; the secretary of state for war translated German philosophy; the French president’s brother was a revered mathematician; General von Hindenburg read Faust on campaign (even Corporal Hitler had his Schopenhauer). The only exceptions were probably the aristocrats of the Vienna cabinet, whose definition of scholarship was that it was what one Jew copied down from another.
Just over five years ago, I was pronounced dead on the front line in Afghanistan. I had collapsed with acute heatstroke in temperatures of 52°C during a military foot patrol. I am a reporter not a soldier, but for four minutes, as a medic attempted to restart my stopped heart, I was a category A. That’s Army speak for ‘goner’.
Six days later, as much to my own surprise as to that of the incredible soldiers who saved my life, I walked out of Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham on my father’s arm and into the cool of an English late summer’s evening.
When all seems too gloomy to endure, I take myself up to the British Camp in the Malverns, there among the windblown tufts and Iron Age ditches. With the rain lashing and my trousers flap-flapping like two Spithead flags, I lean on the gale and claim my birthright: to hum hymns of England and think of our forefathers.
The Camp, by legend the fort of gallant Caractacus, is this kingdom’s greatest hill.
In 1934, in her preface to an anthology of short detective stories, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote, ‘Death in particular seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject.’ And, to judge by the worldwide popularity of this essentially innocent genre, it is not only the Anglo-Saxon race who are addicted to murder and mystery.
It was in the so-called Golden Age between the two world wars that the genre flourished so imaginatively and successfully that it seemed that everyone who could put together a coherent narrative was tempted to join this fascinating and lucrative game.
From Washington to Kabul and in every capital in between, governments, armies, intelligence agencies and the media are asking what will happen in Afghanistan next year when the US and Nato finally leave after 12 years fighting a war they did not win.
Despite the enormous amount of intelligence available, the truth is that nobody knows, not even the Afghans. The best predictions can only be based on knowing what is going right, what is going wrong and what can be done to minimise the dangers of things getting worse.
Broadcaster and journalist
Those early teenage years are a time of doubt and discovery. Take time to be alone and speak honestly to yourself. Weigh up what you think others — family, friends, teachers — think of you. Then consider what you feel about the world and your place in it. Read the world’s great books and see the best of theatre and cinema. Take time to be thoughtful, and then come out bold and confident in yourself.
Listen to Susan Hill read The Boy on the Hillside:
The boy, Seth, stirred in his sleep.
He had pushed the blanket off, with his tossing and turning about.
‘Here, here.’ The man seated on the ground nearest to him rearranged Seth’s covering, pulling it up and tucking it under him until he was swaddled like a baby.
Meredith Swann is driving in her new car under the M40 flyover checking on her GPS system to see if she’s following the flowing arrows correctly. She has switched off the woman’s voice — ‘Turn left in 200 yards’ — because it reminds her uncannily of her mother, all calm, quiet advice with a subtext of disapproval. She turns and turns again. Now she is on a road of towering glass office blocks.
I’m in London to work on impossible.com, the social network I have been developing for two years. Impossible is a place where people can post things they want (from work experience to world peace), and things they’re prepared to give (from Mandarin lessons to website design). The idea is to use a social network to try to encourage a culture of giving and receiving. I’m doing it because I believe people are naturally generous, and that’s the kind of world I want to be in more often.
John Lloyd, producer of Blackadder, Spitting Image, QI etc, has boldly picked up where he left off at Cambridge more than 40 years ago. He has gone back to his youthful passion for stand-up. I’m making a South Bank Show about him and last week I went to Ealing Town Hall. He was on the 9.30 slot in ‘Chortle’ week. It was unlike any stand-up I’d ever seen. But then Not the Nine O’Clock News, his first big hit, was like no comedy show I’d ever seen and his originality continues on Radio 4 in The Museum of Curiosities.
We live by simple stories. X has a stroke. X recovers; or doesn’t. But we live inside more complicated stories. Recovering from a stroke is a long haul; I still have an almost useless left arm and walk like a wildly intoxicated sailor. In my mid-fifties, my stroke has been a special excursion ticket into old age — socks and toenails a bewildering distance away, walking sticks with minds of their own — that kind of thing.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the Master of the Queen’s Music, recently wrote about the almost total ignorance of young people when it comes to classical music, but I think he was wrong when he worried that Mozart and Beethoven were becoming ‘the preserve of the better off’. The truth is that if there’s a lack of interest in the classics, it crosses all classes and income brackets. Not so long ago, I had dinner with the sixth form of one of our leading public schools.
There is no finer city in which to hear music than Vienna. Or, to put it more felicitously, there is no finer city in which to listen to music for, as music-lovers know, there is a world of difference between hearing and listening. In the Imperial City, where most of the great composers in the Austro-German tradition lived and worked, you are on your mettle. As the Italian guide said to the American tourist who had popped into the Uffizi gallery in Florence to find out if there was anything worth seeing: ‘Here, signore, it is not the paintings that are on trial.