Philip Hammond’s last Budget focused on driverless cars as an example of the brave new technological world. But should we believe the hype? The Spectator arranged for Christian Wolmar, author of a new book on the subject, to meet Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy & Mather and The Spectator’s Wiki Man columnist, to talk about the future of driving and transport.
Wolmar: Let’s face it: we’re talking about a technology that will never happen.
Order of the Garter
BBC Sports Personality of the Year
The Supreme Court
Sir Nicholas Serota and friends
Ciggy soak and TV cook Fanny Cradock
Clean-living (Deliciously) Ella Mills
MCC committee members
If you work for the Church of England in any capacity, from Archbishop of Canterbury to parish flower-arranger, how do you deal with the distressing statistics that in the past 20 years, average Sunday attendance has plummeted to 780,000 and is going down by a rate of about 20,000 a year?
Do you pretend it’s not happening and just tell everyone about the spike in your numbers at Christmas, or accept that it might be happening but believe that God’s grace will deal with the problem in its own good time? Or do you throw your weight behind a vast national marketing initiative, hurling millions of pounds at the problem?
Are you, in short, a denier or a panicker? We must thank Bishop Humphrey Southern, principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon, for coming up with those two words to describe the people on opposite sides of the debate, which isn’t really a debate because the people on opposite sides are hardly speaking to each other.
How nice it would be, in this season of good cheer, to find something hopeful to say. Being a historian, I shall try: history often helps us to see our problems in proportion. But let us grit our teeth and begin with the depressing news.
Worst is the sudden emergence — or re-emergence? — of an unusually angry division within our politics and society. A large part of the political class, and seemingly a sizeable proportion of the country’s educated elite, have distanced themselves from the majority of the country.
For the young heterosexual Spectator male, the dating world is beset with perplexities. It was all so different in his father’s era, when making a pass was not seen by women as harassment or assault but as par for the course on the romance-seeking circuit.
Lunging for kisses without invitation and even pressing girls against a wall were the normal codes of conduct until 2000. The perma-passion of the dance floor, where women and men moved in rhythm, held in each other’s arms, allowed for swifter interpretations and conclusions than any other flirting method.
'You wouldn’t make good spies, would you,’ chuckles Ruth Davidson as she finds us sitting with our backs to the door in the Scottish Parliament café. She then triumphantly declares that she knows who we’ve been speaking to when preparing for the interview — getting two out of the five names isn’t bad going. After this, she sets off for her office at a pace that leaves us and her communications director trailing in her wake.
I am in Paris for the Rolling Stones’ No Filter concert, in Ronnie Wood’s dressing room minutes before he is due on stage. Walking through the door, I find myself in what looks like a giant crèche, and every size of child and grandchild bouncing around on a thick rug woven in the pattern of Ronnie’s ‘Wild Horses’ painting. Ronnie greets me like a long-lost friend with a massive hug, no sign of pre-concert agitation.
It is always a delight to drive the country roads of Hampshire to see the man known throughout the army simply as ‘Dwin’ — Field Marshal Lord Bramall. Until quite recently, I was always greeted at the door in person by the last of the Chiefs of the Defence Staff (CDS) who had really seen war — in France and Germany — but today I am met by Paula, his dedicated carer. ‘Can’t get up so easily these days,’ he says as I ‘salute’ on entering his little study.
Christmas Day marks the birthday of one of the most gifted human beings ever born. His brilliance was of a supernoval intensity, but he was, by all accounts, very far from pleasant company. I refer to Isaac Newton.
Would you like your next child to have the intelligence of a Newton? It may not be long before this is a consumer choice, according to an ambitious new company founded in America a few months ago.
If you think capitalism has blinged up Christmas, you should see what the Communists are doing to it. At this time of year, Chinese cities are dressed up like one big Oxford Street, but with lights that put London’s in the shade. Christmas Eve has become the biggest shopping day of the year. At the school where I taught last year, every classroom had at least three Christmas trees: one outside the door, one inside the door and one at the back.
I have never really believed in ghosts, but I actually had a personal experience which I still find hard to explain. I was walking beside the river Kwai in Thailand with my wife. We had been told that a steam train travelled across the famous bridge once a week as a memorial to the POWs who had died — and we were keen to photograph it.
So we were shocked when, quite suddenly, we heard it approaching, an hour earlier than had been expected.
As Kim Jong-un might blow up the world next year, if not this, and people are forever trying to work out what is going on in his country, perhaps it is worth describing a military parade I attended in Pyongyang a few years back.
The occasion was the centenary of the birth of the current Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Marxist monarchy who, despite his death more than two decades ago, remains Eternal Leader of the nation.
Diet nannies will spend Christmas telling us ‘you are what you eat’ but in the House of Commons ‘you are where you sit’. Are you a Tory Whips’ stooge or a Dominic Grieve groupie aching to block Brexit, a braw new blue Scot or an English provincial plodder without hope of advancement? Parliament-watchers discern plenty about your political leanings from where you park your posterior.
Each side of the Commons chamber has five green-leather benches that are divided by a gangway.
Andrew Michael Hurley’s debut novel, The Loney, was an unsettling gothic horror story set on a bleak stretch of the English coast. It was first published in October 2014 by Tartarus Press, a tiny independent publisher. It won the Costa First Novel Award in 2015 and went on to be named Debut Fiction Book of the Year and Overall Book of the Year at the British Book Industry Awards. Stephen King called The Loney ‘an amazing piece of fiction’.
I have, for utterly explicable reasons, not been asked to guest-edit Radio 4’s Today this Christmas. Had I, though, I would have revived an idea first suggested, I think, by Tony Benn. Everyone loves the Shipping Forecast. But the weather forecast? That’s a different kettle of Michael Fish. The weather is rarely read, it’s emoted. ‘I’m sorry to say it’s been a rainy old day!’ Or, ‘Brrrr, bit of a frost, do wrap up!’ So why not replace emotion with detachment? First we carve up the country into meteorologically logical areas — since it’s Radio 4, let’s use Roman names — and then apply maritime thinking inland.
At the end of each year I pull out most of the New Year’s resolutions I’ve ever made — I now have them going back nearly two decades. They make for curious reading: some years they seem less like an account of what I intend to do with my life than what I don’t. I never took voice lessons, or wrote an original song for the guitar given to me six years ago by my wife, or even learned how to play that guitar.
Edinburgh is a peach of a city, is it not? Last week, I walked up to the castle on a crisp and sunny morning. Crossing high above the railway line, I watched the trains slink out of Waverley station and snake along the valley floor, a giant Hornby set beneath my feet. The path to the castle is tarmacked and rough, but still slippery with morning frost, so I tread carefully as I follow the zigzag to stand under the castle walls at the top.
Memory, neuroscientists tell us, is fallible. It is a dynamic process whereby each time we remember something, it will be changed. Our first memories are probably even less reliable, but I think mine is of Christmas 1953, when I was three. My mother was German and we celebrated Christmas in the German way. An English Christmas is a dull affair in comparison, with presents handed out by underslept parents on a cold and drab Christmas morning, around a tree decorated with electric lights.
I’m just about old enough to remember when smoked salmon was a rare treat. Then, around 1986 or 1987, suddenly it was everywhere. There were smoked salmon sandwiches at M&S, it was stuffed into lurid-looking canapés with cream cheese, and Christmas became a riot of salty fish. For me, smoked salmon is as emblematic of the 1980s as red Porsches, huge mobile phones and the Pet Shop Boys. But it’s almost always a disappointment, that acrid taste only palatable with lots of lemon juice and butter.