‘The shortest way out of Manchester,’ it used to be said, ‘is notoriously a bottle of Gordon’s gin.’ But that was a long time ago, when ‘Cottonopolis’ was the pivot of the Industrial Revolution, the British empire was expanding and life was cheaper. They tend not to drink gin any more in the bars on Deansgate. It’s cocktails, a tenner a pop. The hub of George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is a much-changed city.
Sir John Chilcot’s report into the Iraq invasion, due to be published on 6 July, is expected to highlight the novel structure of government created by New Labour following its landslide victory of 1997. As Tony Blair started to make the case for war, he began to distort the shape and nature of British government in several ways — the most notable being the deliberate debasement of the traditional idea of a neutral, disinterested civil service.
Sitting on a crowded café terrace in Rue Saint-Antoine on a sunny evening last week, there was no sense of national crisis. When a motor scooter backfired, no one jumped. The constant racket of police car sirens was ignored. The National Assembly had just voted for the third extension of a seven-month ‘national emergency’ following terrorist attacks that left 130 dead and 368 injured. But talk of violence in the streets generally referred to the police; have they been too rough with the student demonstrators who are conducting all-night sit-ins in the nearby Place de La République?
The student demonstrations have been provoked by the government’s new employment law, which is designed to reduce unemployment by making it less expensive for employers to take on new (and largely youthful) staff.
You now need to be in your mid-sixties or older — a chilling thought — not to have lived your whole life in the shadow of James Bond. In 1953, the year of the Queen’s coronation and the conquest of Everest, Bond announced his arrival with the words, ‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning’, the opening line of Casino Royale.
His creator was Ian Fleming, a cynical, not-very-clean-living newspaperman with a chequered career behind him, who wrote the book to take his mind off ‘the agony’ of getting married for the first time.
Soon after the date for the EU referendum was set, Timothy Garton Ash published a piece in this magazine under the title ‘A conservative case for staying in’. He was followed by Ian Buruma, attacking the idea that, having left the EU, the British would be more free. And then, after the Obama visit to London, there was Anne Applebaum, assuring us that the US had ‘excellent reasons’ for being opposed to Brexit.
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I am crouching with a tall paper bag over my head, with holes cut out for eyes, nose and mouth, while sniffing a stranger’s hairy armpit. All the faces around me are equally obscured by paper bags, and each is inhaling the scent of underarms; we look for all the world like a very niche branch of the Ku Klux Klan.
People can be mightily protective of their Romantic poets. When I worked at the Keats Shelley House, overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome, one of my colleagues developed a callus on her hand where the daily task of locking the museum door — emphatically — caused the key to abrade her skin. And when I last visited Keats’s grave, with a friend, in the city’s Non-Catholic Cemetery, a middle-aged Italian woman snapped at us to shut up as she muttered through a printout of ‘To Autumn’.