To Voltaire, the British class system could be summed up in a sentence. The people of these islands, he said, ‘are like their own beer; froth on top, dregs at bottom, the middle excellent’. A harsh judgment, perhaps, but one that might still have some truth in it today. Yes, we have horrible poverty in our council estates and toffery on our country estates. But Britain is a country that has always taken pride in what we think of as middle-class virtues — hard work, honesty, thrift and self-help.
In June last year I predicted in these pages that the government would allow High Speed 2 to die a quiet death. Although the government has since reaffirmed its commitment to the proposed railway line, I am sticking to my prediction. Indeed, if the line is ever built I will book a ticket on the first train out of Euston and consume my hat in the dining car.
How can I be so sure? Because the projected costs of the project are now so ridiculous that it cannot possibly go ahead.
The homicidal sheepdog that launched itself at me from behind a grassy hillock, had the look of a demented hearth rug but the fangs of a leopard. No self-respecting Border collie would have taken such a creature as a serious competitor in the herding business. But French sheep are different, at least those in the unfenced wilderness of the Aubrac plateau in the Massif Central are. More goat than sheep, they evidently regarded the ferocious dog as a minder that allowed them to graze full-time while it saw off wolves, bears and other predators, including a pink-faced randonneur trying to decide whether the map had put a volcano in the wrong place or he was indeed lost.
In a stuffy courtroom in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, a major political triumph is being celebrated. Bo Xilai, the Communist princeling, challenged the system and lost, and the system is having its revenge.
Under Marxism-Leninism a trial isn’t an exploration of truth, it’s a balletic demonstration of the rightness of the political system. Accused, witnesses, judges all join in the choreographed display, to prove to everyone’s satisfaction that justice, Chinese-style, is objectively correct.
It’s August, and you are a journalist stuck in the office without an idea in your head. What to write? What to do? Your empty mind brings you nothing but torment, until a thought strikes you, ‘I know, I’ll do Richard Dawkins.’
Dawkins is the sluggish pundit’s dream. It does not matter which paper you work for. Editors of all political persuasions and none will take an attack on Darwin’s representative on earth.
Back in the 1960s, the producers of the Tonight programme had a running joke for linking the show’s segments. They would use lines like: ‘And that item commemorated the 23rd anniversary of….’ Or: ‘On Tuesday Mr Jones would have been 73.’ There is something about anniversaries, however audaciously crowbarred in, that always gives the illusion of order amid the chaos and relevance among the accidental.
Ask anyone from the settled community (known as ‘gorgias’ to Romani Gypsies and as ‘country people’ to Irish Travellers) what Gypsies do for money and the list would be short: tarmacking, roofing, scrap-metal dealing, hawking or maybe horse dealing.
This picture, of course, has a germ of truth in it. Many Gypsies still work as skilled labourers — but what’s remarkable is just how entrepreneurial they are, too.
The bad news for fans of G.K. Chesterton is that there are moves afoot to make him a saint. The Catholic bishop of Northampton, Peter Doyle, is reportedly looking for a priest to promote his canonisation. Pope Francis is an admirer, too; he supported a Chesterton conference in Buenos Aires and was on the honorary committee of the Chesterton Society.
So why is this a bad idea? Chesterton was, among other things, probably the most engaging apologist for Catholicism, long before he became a Catholic.
Such an ugly word, ‘binge’. Why can’t we talk about ‘spree drinking’ or ‘frolic drinking’ or ‘extravaganza drinking’? But no, it has to be ‘binge drinking’, a term loaded (pre-loaded?) with connotations. Well you can stick your connotations: it’s binge drinking for me every time.
Or rather not every time. That’s the whole point: you don’t binge as a matter of habit, otherwise it’s not a binge. But the other thing you don’t do as a habit — and this is really what I’m getting at — is sit at home with a nicely acceptable Chilean merlot every night, tooting most of the bottle and patting yourself on the Boden-clad back for being totally in control.