‘Would you like a glass of pink champagne?’ asks Alex Salmond at 3.30 p.m., sounding very much like a man settling down for the afternoon. It’s Monday and Scotland’s former first minister has cause to celebrate. He spent the previous day musing on television about the price he’d demand for the SNP supporting Ed Miliband in the Commons, and his thoughts dominate the front pages. There’s plenty of outrage at the idea of the SNP toying with England, and outrage is just what he wanted.
If the cries of ‘Je suis Charlie’ were sincere, the western world would be convulsed with worry and anger about the Wallström affair. It has all the ingredients for a clash-of-civilisations confrontation.
A few weeks ago Margot Wallström, the Swedish foreign minister, denounced the subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia. As the theocratic kingdom prevents women from travelling, conducting official business or marrying without the permission of male guardians, and as girls can be forced into child marriages where they are effectively raped by old men, she was telling no more than the truth.
David Cameron is honest to a fault — or so he told us this week. While cooking lunch in the kitchen of his Oxfordshire home, he was asked, in terms, whether this is the last election he’ll fight as party leader. Yes, he said, it was. He was then kind enough to name three potential successors. And when shortly afterwards broadcast journalists grew greatly excited by this, he said he had done nothing more than give a ‘very straight answer to a very straight question’.
It was mid-October and Downing Street was in a panic. Lord Freud, the welfare minister, had been secretly recorded suggesting that disabled people could be paid less than the minimum wage.
Labour demanded Freud should go. The No. 10 press office was briefing journalists that he would be out within hours. Craig Oliver, excitable Downing Street director of communications, advised the Prime Minister that Freud was finished.
The English aristocracy has had its fair share of misfits, and one of the most far-fetched was Unity Mitford. No novelist would dare invent the story of a young woman of 19 who settles in Germany in 1933, determines to captivate Hitler, and succeeds. Eva Braun, the long-term mistress whom Hitler married in the last days of his life, gives way in her diary to jealousy and spite. There is evidence provided either by Unity herself or Nazi officials that Hitler held her hand, stroked her hair and called her ‘Kind’ (child).
Belle Gibson was a publicist’s dream: a ‘wellness guru’ and young mother with a wholesome blonde beauty, a wide white smile, and just enough tattoos to look modern. She had already encountered appalling adversity for one barely into her twenties: in 2009, she revealed, doctors had diagnosed her with malignant brain cancer and told her bluntly: ‘You’re dying. You have six weeks. Four months tops.’
Sickened by two months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, Gibson said, she had abandoned conventional treatment in favour of a range of holistic treatments, including Ayurvedic medicine and oxygen therapies.
‘I love my new kitchen heart of the home let’s fill it with friends happy.’ So says the thought bubble in the current ad for the estate agents Rightmove, part of their ‘Find your happy’ campaign. Don’t even get me started on the lack of punctuation — or the use of ‘happy’ as a noun. What I’m worrying about is the kitchen itself. Glimpsing Ed Miliband’s second kitchen last week, we came face to face with the drabness of today’s hyper-hygienic kitchen.
Every working day before I start pounding the keyboard of my ridiculously flashy 27-inch iMac, I perform a little ritual. I straighten the fountain pens I keep on my desk, and make sure they are fully inked.
Though I always have an eye for my next acquisition, I currently have just six pens, which are fuelled by four bottles of ink I keep next to them — Waterman black and serenity blue, Pelikan turquoise and Parker red.
Technology businesses have a genius for inflicting indignities on us and spinning them as virtues. When they don’t want to respect copyright, they talk about the ‘democratisation of content’. When they want to truffle through our contact lists and browsing histories, they talk about ‘openness’ and ‘personalisation’. A hundred years ago, when a widow had to take in lodgers to pay the bills, it was called misfortune.
The sun has only just risen in Rome and we are standing bleary-eyed in a short queue outside the Vatican. Our guide, Tonia, takes us through security, and within minutes we are in a nearly empty Sistine Chapel. In an hour it will be crammed with tourists — sweating, gawping, getting in each other’s way. Vatican officials will be shushing and clapping to quieten the chatter. Now, though, we are free to contemplate Michelangelo’s swirl of naked bodies in peace.