The most obnoxious advert on American television this Christmas season features a thirtyish man telling his wife he ‘got us a little something’ at a holiday sale. He leads her out to the colossal driveway of their newly built modernist mansion to show her just what: two brand-new GMC pickup trucks, a boxy, blue one for him and an effeminate, red one for her.
Anyone who has watched more than an hour of American TV over the past decade will know what comes next.
I spend most of my time drawing politicians, trying to work out what makes them distinctive. The eyes, the expression, their mood: it’s all about finding people’s peculiarities and accentuating them. When I started, I’d focus on the face. Everything else was an afterthought. It wasn’t until I came across a drawing by the Norwegian cartoonist Finn Graff – a cartoon of Helmut Kohl, I think – that I realised what I had been missing.
Imagine looking at a photo of a stranger and feeling in response, quite naturally, the sort of happy affection you might feel towards a spouse. Well, it’s weird. In July this year, when Benedict Cumberbatch was filming Channel 4’s upcoming Brexit film (Brexit: The Uncivil War) a friend sent me some photos by text message, tabloid snaps from the set. Benedict plays my husband Dominic Cummings, director of the Leave campaign, and the shots were long-lens and hazy: Ben/Dom pushing his son on a swing; Ben/Dom kissing his wife.
A decade ago, a publisher produced a set of short biographies of Britain’s 20th-century prime ministers, which I reviewed unenthusiastically. My wife reproved me: ‘What did you do that for? For a fee of a few hundred pounds you have made a dozen entirely gratuitous new enemies. If you don’t have something good to say about books, don’t write about them.’
Honest reviewing would grind to a halt if all its practitioners deferred to her advice.
None of us can predict the potential fallout from Brexit, good and bad. What began as a vote of confidence in our institutions has shown them to be dangerously fallible. A country where people usually rub along together is now marked by a cultural and emotional rift.
If Brexit does continue to dominate our politics for years, will it mean a reform of our institutions, or a battening down of the hatches by a beleaguered elite? Will the House of Lords, having alienated its natural defenders, at last be seriously reformed? Shall we try to restrain the dangerously capricious powers of prime ministers? Shall we empower local government? Both Brexiteers and Remainers will be in a rather militant mood.
Christmas in our family seems to guarantee tears and tantrums as well as jingle bells and jollity. Indeed, in my childhood, ‘feeling Christmassy’ meant feeling thoroughly overwrought or bad tempered, the antithesis of the ‘Christmas Spirit’. I think my father invented it when my mother, who was a terrible cook, spent all day making marmalade to give as Christmas presents and was then beside herself with anger when she burnt the lot.
Donald Trump derangement syndrome works both ways. It makes the President’s enemies hate him so much they go insane. It also affects Trump’s allies and supporters, who love him so much that they have become demented.
Among Republicans in Washington, you still have elitist Never Trumpers, who loathe him with a pathological fury. You also have a growing number of insider loyalists who revere him so intensely that they’ve gone blind.
There’s an old joke that the most dangerous position in the Tory party is the favourite for the leadership. The frontrunner always ends up with a target on his back, which is why Sajid Javid should be feeling a little nervous right now. Theresa May survived a confidence vote but only after saying that she would resign before too long - so the hunt for a successor is on. He is Home Secretary, his fourth cabinet post.
Frank Field was given a standing ovation when he won The Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year award two weeks ago. Normally there’s polite applause, but he is the hero of the current clash between the Corbynistas and what used to be the Labour party. His local party in Birkenhead has threatened to deselect him so he plans to stand as an Independent next time, and he said in his acceptance speech: ‘If I’m successful in winning the seat again, then in some small way, as with Brexit, we will begin to change British politics.
Alexander McCall Smith
There is a painting in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art that I find quite haunting. It is called ‘A Portrait Group’, and is by the Scottish artist James Cowie. Cowie painted this picture in 1933 and then reworked it in 1940. He was an art teacher, and often used his pupils as models. In this painting, he didn’t get the models to sit together, but created the painting from separate studies he had made of various sitters.
I am writing from my home, Barquisimeto, the fourth largest city in Venezuela, which was, not so long ago, the most prosperous country in Latin America. In the past four years, things here have changed — utterly.
I am writing to explain how much has changed, and how quickly. I moved here as a girl in 1973 from San Cristobal in the Tachira region of the Andes, and I went on to become a university professor.
The physicists Marc Warner and Emanuele Moscato met Professor Carlo Rovelli, author of the bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. Together they questioned him about his latest book, The Order of Time, which has been compared with the work of Stephen Hawking. Their conversation explains and explores the meaning of time, as it is and as we perceive it to be.
A theory of time
A practical reader of your book The Order of Time might wonder why we care about time, when it seems so obvious and so universal.
Ihad completely forgotten about the letter. It’s not that surprising, as I’d received it in February 1981. I was 18 and living with my parents in Northolt, west London. And for at least the past 25 years it had been in the garage in a box. Forgotten.
That was until we decided something had to be done about the mess and had a good old sort out. My daughter found it and asked: ‘Who’s this from, Dad?’
I knew who it was from the minute she handed it to me.
Christmas books pages usually invite columnists to nominate their publishing event of the year. Well, here’s a corker: The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century, published by the House of Lords Citizenship and Civic Engagement committee. That obscure body has 12 members and takes itself seriously. The Ties that Bind was the fruit of hearings it held into ‘civic engagement through the prism of the civic journey each one of us who lives in Britain will undertake’.
Saif ul-Malook greets me in the hallway of his daughter’s home. Pakistani hospitality dictates that a guest should not go hungry, so there are plates of samosas, kebabs and biscuits. I am also of Pakistani heritage, so know that etiquette dictates that I must politely refuse a few times — or until I can no longer ignore my rumbling stomach.
Malook was flown out of Pakistan, because his life was in danger.
‘Wake up, boy! Wake up...’ My father was shaking me and I was confused because it seemed that I had only just gone to sleep.
‘Get dressed. Hurry.’
The lamps were not lit and the house was silent.
Outside, the night sky glittered with stars and silken moonlight shone across the sand.
My father was the baker in our village not far from the city, and we could see the lights of braziers and torches and the oil lamplight, that seemed to run up and down inside itself, like water.
‘Christmas Eve in Mayfair, Jeeves! There’s nothing in heaven to top it. Even with the terror of eleventh-hour shopping for the gang Travers.’
‘But we can’t pitch up at Brinkley Court tomorrow bereft of g., f., and the other one.’
‘Myrrh, sir? No, sir.’
‘I fear I’m both a little later and much tighter than expected. I bumped into Bingo, you see, and had a snifter at the Feverish Cheese.
I’m not surprised that black people are still eight times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by the police, despite the less frequent use of those powers. It happened to me regularly in the 1990s. One rainy night I was driving through the City of London in one of the cars loaned to bishops for their work, when a constable flagged me down. It was winter and a scarf covered my dog collar.
There’s a Christmas poem of mine, written in the 1980s, that ends with the line ‘And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful, if you’re single’. When I read Bridget Jones’s Diary I was interested to find that the central character felt the same, and even more interested to see that Helen Fielding had included my poem. The first thing I did was to check the acknowledgements to make sure that her publishers had asked permission from my publishers.
Just back from a few days in Rome — the perfect small metropolis for ‘street-haunting’, as Cyril Connolly described his love of strolling through cities. I first went to Rome in 1976, aiming to interview — for my university magazine — three of the writers who lived there or thereabouts at the time. I duly wrote to Anthony Burgess, Gore Vidal and Muriel Spark. All of them politely turned me down but I went anyway and have revisited the city many times.
I’m moving house, parting ways with my beloved friend Georgia. For eight years, the two of us have laughed madly, danced wildly and cried horribly. But life moves on and so must we. Boxing, labelling and filing items is not in my nature, which makes Operation Declutter rather difficult. Instead, I sit amid a sea of bin liners stuffed with objects that share stories from the past year: sentimental letters, family photos, dog-eared books, plays and endless diaries reminding me of good days, and bad ones.
It took three hours for cabin fever to set in. Last Christmas, snowed in at the Oxfordshire homestead, my brother Ed and I, cooped up, cross, snappish, reverted to childhood squabbling. There’s a photo on my phone of Ed’s dog Rags standing at the kitchen door looking mournfully through the glass. We did let her out, but there are few sights so pitiable as a Chihuahua--Pomeranian trying to gambol, shivering, through four inches of snow.