When Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman in 2018 in a gesture of goodwill to Israel’s neighbours, the welcome was not universal. For an Israeli Prime Minister to be warmly greeted in a proud Arab state was, for some, far too much. The Omani foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, was asked on Al Jazeera why the visit had been allowed. The reply went viral: ‘Why not? Is it forbidden to us? Israel is a nation among the nations of the Middle East.
Sir Tom Stoppard is Britain’s — perhaps the world’s — leading playwright. Born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, in 1937, his family left as the German army moved in. The Strausslers were Jewish. In adulthood he learned that all four of his grandparents were killed by the Nazis. His father was killed by the Japanese on a boat out of Singapore as he tried to rejoin his wife and two sons. In India his mother married again, to an English Army man who gave his stepchildren his surname.
The era of uncertainty has ended. Boris Johnson’s decisive victory has not only broken the Brexit deadlock created by Theresa May’s disastrous 2017 campaign, but also turned the page on almost a decade of weak government.
The previous three general elections have all resulted in constrained prime ministers. First, David Cameron was forced to govern in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Then, in 2015, his slim majority left him dependent on Tories who would be on the other side from him in the EU referendum he had had to promise.
On 13 October, John Henry Newman, a distinguished and distinctive Englishman, was officially declared a Saint. A well-known saying of his is: ‘To live is to change; to be perfect is to change often.’ How did that work in his life and, to a lesser extent, how has it worked in mine?
In 1833, Newman was desperate to get back to England from a trip to Italy, including to Rome, for which he acquired a deep dislike.
Every Christmas I find I am living in the past. I blame my father. He was born in 1910 — before radio, before TV, before cinema had sound, so he and his siblings made their own entertainment at Christmas. He brought up his children to do the same, which is why my unfortunate offspring have a Christmas that’s essentially a century out of date. There are three elements at its heart: board games that end in rows, parlour games that end in tears, and party pieces performed around the Christmas tree.
There’s a moment in Ricky Gervais’s 2018 Netflix stand-up show Humanity when he talks about buying a first-class air ticket, only to be informed that nuts would not be served on board due to a fellow passenger’s serious allergy. ‘I was fuming,’ he says. ‘If being near a nut kills you, do we really want that in the gene pool? I’ve never wanted nuts more. I felt that she was infringing on my human right to eat nuts.
For the past several decades, little in my life as a professional pianist has been as constant as my relationship with Beethoven. It has been intense, immersive, impassioned, hugely demanding and hugely enriching. In the current season, though, it has become something it never was before: exclusive.
Let me explain. Like any serious piano student, I first began to work on one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas around the age of ten.
‘Flamenco, lambada/ But hip hop is harder/ We moonwalk the foxtrot/ Then polka the salsa…’ I’m sure you know those lines from the Spice Girls’ anthem ‘Spice Up Your Life’, which happens to be the biggest song-and-dance number in this year’s Jack and the Beanstalk pantomime at Helmsley Arts Centre in North Yorkshire. It’s also a spotlight moment for the Dame, who’s required to wiggle extravagantly downstage then pirouette for the next line — ‘Shake it, shake it, shake it’ — and do just that.
‘How can one person lead one hundred?’ That was one of the questions in my Cambridge entrance exams back in 1981, and although I can’t now recall whether I tried to answer it in the three hours we were given, it has fascinated me ever since. So when I was given the splendid opportunity of delivering nine Lehrman Institute lectures on military history at the New-York Historical Society three years ago, I used them to try to answer it, at least in terms of war leadership.
It was early evening on Sunday 6 August 1944. The Allies’ bloody struggle to liberate Normandy from the Nazis had reached the village of Vaudry.
As gunfire broke out on a farm near the Pont du Vaudry, 40 members of one French family threw themselves into a trench next to the house. They pulled torn mattresses and tarpaulins over their heads; those sheltering ranged in age from very elderly grandparents to a four-week-old baby.
My 2018 ended with a hate storm, in response to my appointment as chair of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. But the new year brings a lull, and I hope and pray that the Grand Inquisitor enthroned by social media will find another target.
The 27th is my 75th birthday, and as it happens the last Wednesday meet of foxhounds for the season. We host the meet and celebrate with our neighbours.
Let nobody tell you that the second decade of the 21st century has been a bad time. We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 per cent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 per cent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline.