During a frantic online rummage for last-minute Christmas presents (I am too old to risk actually purchasing anything on the internet this close to the 25th, but I thought I might find some inspiration for presents I could then go out and buy in the shops and drag home in a bag on a stinking bus full of fat tourists through solid traffic), I came upon something very disturbing indeed: novelty baby clothes inspired by… Fifty Shades of Grey.
It’s time for the immemorial Christmas custom in which the family gathers round the iPad, cracks another walnut, and sharpens its competitive claws on the Spectator’s traditional challenge to suppressed memories of unlikely events, political gaffes, terrible films, old books and the Olympic opening ceremony.
1 On whose painting, ‘Black on Maroon’, in the Tate, did a man scrawl ‘A potential piece of Yellowism’?
2 A three-year-old chicken nugget from McDonald’s, Dakota City, Nebraska, said to resemble which US president, sold for $8,100?
3 Name the MP who consented to 3,000 cockroaches and 5,000 crickets being poured on to her in an underground crate.
Let’s get this straight. I’m a feminist. That’s the way I was brought up. My mum was a passionate women’s libber and I always agreed with my mum — even when she was wrong — but she was right on that one. The struggle to free one sex has liberated both. The human species is now freer, more dynamic and more fulfilled than ever.
But here’s the oddity. When I read histories of the women’s movement I rarely find any hint that men were involved at all.
Behind Michael Gove’s desk stands an imposing McCarthy-era poster which says: ‘Sure I want to fight Communism — but how?’ In their less charitable moments, Tories may argue that his Department of Education is as good a place as any to start. The strength of its grip over state schools has long been the subject of political laments and Yes, Minister sketches. Confronting the educational establishment was too much for the Blair reformers and even the Thatcher government.
Look down the list of the masters, wardens and principals of Oxford colleges and you’ll soon see that The Spectator’s contributing editor Peter Oborne was on to something with his theory of the inexorable rise of the media and political classes. At high tables across the university, former journalists, broadcasting executives and quangocrats are increasingly occupying places of honour once reserved for scholars of great renown.
More than half a decade has passed since the recession that triggered the financial panic and the Great Recession, but the condition of the world continues to be summed up by what I’ve called ‘turboparalysis’ — a prolonged condition of furious motion without movement in any particular direction, a situation in which the engine roars and the wheels spin but the vehicle refuses to move.
The greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression might have been expected to produce revolutions in politics and the world of ideas alike.
My belief in God is not philosophical. It is not rooted in metaphysics or reason. It springs from the heart and the senses. It is practical. Every Sunday I attend the 11 o’clock Mass at the Jesuit church in Farm Street, Mayfair. I have been doing this, intermittently, for decades. For me, Farm Street is the centre of English Catholicism and brings back memories of my boyhood at Stonyhurst, the ancient Jesuit boarding school in Lancashire.
It is strange now to recall the jubilation with which the ‘Arab Spring’ was welcomed. Amid all the excitement of dictators toppling, many people here in the West, as well as some over there on the ground, forgot that the test of a revolution is not the overthrow of a tyrant, but what comes next.
Though they will never admit it, the Arab revolutions surprised western governments as much as the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe.
Christmas isn’t about giving. Or receiving. It’s about washing up. And for some of us that’s its greatest joy.
You think men hide from housework? Not when it comes to the soapy science, we don’t. Virtually all my male friends share a love of the bubbles. For us, ‘festive season’ equals ‘even more plates and cups to wash than usual’, and so we’re happy as pigs in Fairy Liquid. Why do we feel the lure of the sink, when other household tasks send us scurrying? Simplicity is part of it: ironing is fiddly, vacuuming and dusting unproductive, in that they leave you with literally nothing to show for your efforts.
Which classic work do you think this comes from? ‘Her teeth were white in her brown face and her skin and her eyes were the same golden tawny brown. She had high cheek-bones, merry eyes and a straight mouth with full lips. Her hair was the golden brown of a grain field that has been burned dark in the sun but it was cut short all over her head so that it was but little longer than the fur on a beaver pelt.
Joanna Lumley and Sister Elizabeth Obbard are seated at the front of the church. Lumley is perched elegantly on the edge of her chair; Sister Elizabeth settles deep into hers, submerged under folds of habit. They are talking in front of an audience at the Carmelite church in Kensington, west London, about life as a nun. And Sister Elizabeth is being wonderfully honest. ‘The first six months were dreadful,’ she says.
In mid-November an Indian chauffeur taking me to Broadcasting House made a detour to show me the Christmas lights in Regent Street. He wished to share the pleasure that they gave him and it was with glee that of the shops he used the terms ‘top class’ and ‘posh’, when to me the street seems almost as tawdry as the ghastly trek from Marble Arch to Oxford Circus. Dissembling, I went through the motions of agreement, thanked him for the treat, and fell into deep melancholy at the thought of yet another Christmas and all that it no longer means to me.
The electricity will be on in one hour, says my landlady. She tells me that it is dark out all over town (ignoring the glittering chrome bridge over the Mtkvari River, ignoring the casino that casts neon shadows on the banks at night). She calls me ‘daughter’ and evades specifics. Won’t I come upstairs for dinner at eight, or perhaps nine? (She is so busy; she works so hard; she’ll ring when dinner is ready.
Just before stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury, the late Robert Runcie told me — in a sotto voce conversation during the General Synod — that charismatic evangelical parishes such as Holy Trinity Brompton (‘HTB’) in South Kensington, with their American-style worship, near-fundamentalist teaching and smart social connections, posed more of a threat to the Church of England than divisions over women priests.
I bumped into Steve Martin dining with Eric Idle at a Beverly Hills boîte, as one does. ‘I really enjoy your Spectator diaries,’ said Steve. ‘And I,’ said Mr Idle. ‘And you and the roller-skating nuns were the best thing in the Olympic finale,’ I chirped back. Hollywood folk love to give each other compliments. I buttered up George Clooney at the Carousel Ball, where he was being honoured for his charitable work in Haiti and the Sudan, by telling him how much I adored Argo, which he co-produced, and that same night I told Shirley MacLaine how much I liked her in Downton, even though I’d gladly have maimed her for the part.
My Turkish never having got beyond intermediate, I always have the same conversation with taxi drivers. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘England, actually I’m a Scotsman,’ I say. Cue suppressed giggles about skirts and whisky from the driver, perhaps a mention of Braveheart. I ask: ‘Where are you from?’ Most taxi drivers in Istanbul are from the Black Sea and they repeat the clichés about Black Sea types: ‘Oh everyone likes you, you’re hard-working with sense of humour.
For obvious reasons, people are always looking for a nicer word for right-wing. For a while, they tried ‘free-market’ — after all, it sounds spirited and buccaneering — but the 2008 financial crisis left that one holed below the waterline. There was a brief fashion for trying to make the word ‘laissez-faire’ sound attractive, but it succumbed to the same lethal question Raymond Williams once asked of the permissive society.
I used to spend a small part of every Christmas season worrying that perhaps that year, the particular year in which I was worrying, wasn’t quite as Christmassy as all the others. Generally speaking, I can take all the cinnamon and cloves and ching-chingy shop music you can throw at me, even the colossal seasonal uplift in general wassail-ment, without so much as a prickle of Nowell-feeling making itself known in my breast.