Theresa May is a cautious politician. She has risen to the top by avoiding unnecessary risks; no one survives 18 years on the Tory front bench by being a gambler. But few prime ministers have the luxury of choosing their battles, and she would not have chosen the two that may now define her premiership: successfully negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union while saving the United Kingdom.
I was raised as an observant Muslim in a British family. Women, I was taught, determine their own conduct — including their ‘veiling’. We’d cover our hair only if we freely chose to do so. That’s why I’m baffled by the notion that all good Muslim women should cover their hair or face. My entire family are puzzled by it too, as are millions like us. Not until recent years has the idea taken root that Muslim women are obliged by their faith to wear a veil.
Just 350 years ago, in April 1667, John Milton sold all rights to Paradise Lost to the printer Samuel Simmons — for £5, with another £5 due once Simmons had the first run of 1,300 copies off his hands. That sounds like a bargain for the 12-book epic poem of Satan’s war with Heaven, Eve’s ‘fatal trespass’ and the expulsion from Eden that soon became a monumental pillar of the literary canon. Samuel Johnson — who as a Tory deplored Milton’s revolutionary politics — placed it first (for design) and second (for execution) ‘among the productions of the human mind’.
In the autumn of 1888 London was in a state of terrified excitement over Jack the Ripper. There had never been a killer like this in England before, wrote Meredith Townsend and Richard Holt Hutton, the joint editors of The Spectator. They congratulated the British public on not succumbing to the continental habit of lynching (‘In Naples the doctors would have perished, in Berlin the Jews’) but warned that ‘this devil’ might never be caught.
A British military base is being used for a multi-million-quid criminal enterprise, possibly involving the Russian mafia — and Britain seems powerless to prevent it. Last year they had a crack at enforcement and had to give up. Mafia 1, British army 0.
It’s happening in Cyprus, in the British Sovereign Base Areas. The situation in Cyprus is a bit like the Schleswig-Holstein Question, but with more complex problems of nationality, culture and power.
On the Israeli side of the Syrian border, near al-Quneitra, you can watch the war. From my vantage point on the hill, I see a town held by Jabhat al-Nusra and another held by Nusra’s enemy, Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Behind a hill in the distance, I’m told by my Israeli guide, is an area controlled by Isis. Near a road blockade, a sign reads ‘Mortal Danger. Any person who passes endangers his life’ — a point reinforced by the rumble of mortars exploding and the screams that follow.
The centenary of General Allenby’s capture of Jerusalem falls later this year. On 11 December 1917, the commander-in-chief of Britain’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force entered the city on foot in recognition of the unique sensitivities surrounding the world’s holiest city. War and farce are never too far removed and, as is so often the case on these extraordinarily important moments, the surrender of Jerusalem almost went hilariously wrong.