The Dutch city of Leiden has rarely played a dramatic role in European history. Quiet, rainy and tucked away close to the sea, it is in many ways the Durham of the Continent. It was besieged by the Spanish in the Eighty Years’ War, Rembrandt was born and worked there, Einstein taught intermittently at its university — and that is about it. Yet this week Leiden is at the centre of European politics, and in a way that almost no one could have expected.
Ursula von der Leyen looks every inch the modern European stateswoman. Her tailored trouser suits, no-fuss hair and assured speeches: what’s not to like?
When she was put forward by the European Council for President of the European Commission, her fellow Germans knew precisely what to expect. A poll found that only a third said she would be good at the job. Martin Schulz, a former president of the European parliament, did not mince his words.
Seeing my hometown, Bristol, in flames this week following the violent ‘Kill the Bill’ riots, it was unrecognisable as the safe south-west city which I had dreamed of leaving since the age of 12 (when I started sleeping beneath a poster of Harry Beck’s classic London Underground map). I finally escaped to the capital in search of fame, fortune, sex and drugs at 17.
When some people say ‘I don’t recognise the place’, they’re usually talking about the effects of immigration, but that’s not my experience.
I’ve just had the first sign that things are going back to normal — and that I’m going back to normal, too. I was suddenly struck by a feeling I’ve not had since the first lockdown last March; a feeling writers and journalists know all too well. Literary envy.
Whatever your profession, envy is something we all know. A colleague’s promotion or a friend’s pay increase prompts that inner voice of brattish resentment. Envy is the herpes of competitive capitalism — it disappears from view and just when you think it’s gone for good, up it pops.
Like most prime ministers, Boris Johnson has grown fond of deploying the military — albeit so far on the home front. Enthused by the army’s service in the London Olympics, he turned to them when the pandemic struck and 101 Logistic Brigade have been embedded in government ever since. They distributed PPE to frontline workers in March last year, and this year have become an integral part of the vaccine rollout. ‘The military don’t moan about health and safety regulation or a 40-hour week,’ says one minister.
You’ve heard about Everyone’s Invited? It’s the controversial new website for female students, mostly schoolgirls, to unburden themselves about boys behaving badly. It has trashed the reputation of some independent schools, Dulwich being the latest. There are sections for St Paul’s, Eton and Latymer Upper — and, among the private schools, my son’s state school, which takes girls in sixth form. The first thing my daughter, 14, does in the morning is to whip out her phone and scroll through the posts.
Earlier this month, with the citizenry still confined to their houses, borrowing at record highs and GDP in a record slump, there was a debate in Westminster Hall about ‘conversion therapy’. An internet petition has called on the government to ‘Make LGBT conversion therapy illegal in the UK’. And so for a couple of hours MPs from across the major parties competed with each other to express their horror at gay and trans people being subjected to this practice.
I belong to a dying breed. Well, not a breed exactly, but a dwindling number who witnessed a world and a way of life that will never be repeated: we are the last babies of the British Raj. In my view the doyen of our group was the writer Charles Allen whose many books, starting with Plain Tales from the Raj, are almost all about the India he left at eight years old. He and I were on the same ship coming ‘home’ in 1948: the SS Franconia.
The last time I drank mead was 7 April 1978. It was my 18th birthday and —unforgettably — it was snowing heavily. My chum Mark had bought me a bottle of Lindisfarne Mead which I knocked back on top of several Tequila Sunrises, a bottle of Black Tower and a few Brandy Alexanders.
This toxic mix took its toll and I was violently sick during an all-comers’ snowball fight the length of the Fulham Road, before getting arrested for being drunk and disorderly outside the Café des Artistes at 3 a.