‘They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He shends one of yoursh to the hospital, you shend one of hish to the morgue.’ Thus Sean Connery in The Untouchables, explaining how you fight a war ‘Chicago-style’. How would you adapt that, do we think, for our collective response to the Paris attacks? ‘They pull a gun, you pull a hashtag. They send 132 of yours to the morgue, you start calling them a slightly rude name.
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[/audioplayer]Not so long ago, David Cameron declared that he was not some ‘naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet’. Just a few weeks after making that speech, Cameron authorised UK forces to join in the bombing of Libya — where the outcome reaffirmed this essential lesson.
I’ll willingly admit that the moors of south-west England are not my natural territory. Mention the word ‘Dartmoor’ and my immediate thoughts are of scruffy, sturdy ponies and a giant bog. But then I boarded a train to Exeter to spend two days crossing said bog on horseback, and my whole perception changed. Yes, there were bogs (at one point my horse descended almost entirely into one — quite unnerving for those following behind) and plenty of wild ponies.
What strange people we Brits are. We spend years moaning that our politicians are cynical opportunists who don’t stand for anything. Then along comes an opposition leader who has principles — and appears to stick by them even when it makes him unpopular — and he is dismissed as a joke.
Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed in recent days for the feebleness of his foreign policy. It is widely agreed that his positions on terrorism and Isis show how unelectable and useless he is.
It is safe to predict that when 20,000 world leaders, officials, green activists and hangers-on convene in Paris next week for the 21st United Nations climate conference, one person you will not see much quotedis Professor Judith Curry. This is a pity. Her record of peer-reviewed publication in the best climate-science journals is second to none, and in America she has become a public intellectual.
Like most British soldiers of my generation, I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Few would now justify the reasons for invading Iraq; most of us who fought there at first recognised the amateurish nature of the strategy and its lack of realistic political objectives. But in 2007, under General Petraeus, the coalition adopted a new strategy that was underpinned by coherent policy. This stemmed from the recognition that unless common cause was found with moderate Sunnis, a workable Iraqi polity could never be established.
The veneer of civilisation is easily cracked, as anyone who has followed Donald Trump’s Twitter feed will know. This Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the point of which is no longer clear, there will be riots in shops across the globe, as people fight over discounted products they do not need or even want. The returns rate for goods bought on Black Friday is very high, which does not surprise me.
In 1981, when I was ten and Ian Botham was 26, I thought he was God. Now, the week after Botham turned 60, the 44-year-old me thinks he’s an arse. And that makes me sad.
The world is a simple place when you’re ten. There are heroes and villains, victories and defeats. The very best victories are the ones that were nearly defeats. Headingley 1981, for example. No need for the details — you know them already, not just from the match itself but from the hundreds of documentaries made about it since.
Do you have sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria? It’s a hard question to answer: perhaps you’d wonder who the ‘fighters’ were. Or whether the ‘young Muslims’ were 14-year-old girls, groomed by fanatics to be jihadi brides. But if you answer ‘yes’, you may be surprised to find yourself described as having ‘sympathy for jihadis’. Such are the perils awaiting British Muslims who respond to opinion poll questions.
Sriracha, for the uninitiated, is a chilli sauce, thicker and sweeter than Tabasco, with a garlicky tang. They eat it in Thailand and Vietnam, though the world’s top brand is made in California with a distinctive rooster on the bottle. Once you have Sriracha in the fridge, you find yourself adding it to many ad hoc meals: fried eggs, falafel, corn fritters. It’s ketchup for grown-ups: a comforting dab of something sweet and spicy that makes everything taste familiar.
The sherry industry always used to admit that 75 per cent of its UK sales occurred in the weeks before Christmas. A large proportion of this was to teetotallers, who needed something to offer the family, or the vicar, or Father Christmas, or whoever happened to drop by over the holidays and was in need of what my late lamented nanny used to call ‘Festive Cheer’. The great advantage of a bottle of sherry was that, after the guests had departed and there was something left in the bottle, it wouldn’t turn to vinegar as rapidly as the remains of a bottle of wine.
Is anything worse than the office Christmas party? It is almost always a horror show. Colleagues who are cheerful all year round turn into angry drunks. Usually benign bosses become second-rate pimps. The interesting become boring and the boring become interminable.
The average office Christmas do tends to leave you wishing you didn’t have to come back to the grind next year. Why should it be so? Most of us like the people we work with— give or take — so a few hours of celebration should be fun.
We all know what we think of as the great English Christmas lunch/dinner — turkey (originally from America) or goose (a worldwide bird, first domesticated in Ancient Egypt), Brussels sprouts (from Rome via Belgium), potatoes (also from the Americas). So, in fact, there is no such thing as a great English feast. Or is there?
While the poor had little choice of food, the English traditionally knew how to feast.
A few years ago, I came across an interview with an illustrious French chef who had made his home in Britain. I’ve forgotten which chef, but I do remember him going to some lengths to impress on us rosbifs just how lucky we are with our dairy cows. When he moved here, he was astonished by the quality of milk available to the average Briton and remade a number of his dishes to celebrate our heavenly liquid.
Rich olives salted à la Grecque with herbs Provence Waitrose family hamper: Not Provencal or Greek but Moroccan, these black Beldi olives, sprinkled with dried herbs, are plump, soft and not too salty. — Clare Asquith
Mini crocq salami bites Harrods Montpelier hamper: Little parcels of meaty joy to go with cheese and wine. A snack to gorge on. — Sebastian Payne
Parmesan, rosemary and chilli crackers Ottolenghi hamper: I’d eat a beer mat fried with Parmesan and chilli, and rose-mary gilds the lily.
There’s a dirty Scottish secret. Nothing to do with the price of Brent crude, or who votes for Nicola: it’s that our global triumph, whisky, is now done rather brilliantly by others. Your reviewer is no bigot. I have gurgled and gargled Canadian, Swedish, Welsh and American whisky. These days, winter isn’t winter without Woodford Reserve. Even the English produce drinkable drams — drinkable, that is, for the curry-contaminated palates of chain-smoking Swindon estate agents.
My family knows that once the flaming pudding is on the table, late on Christmas Day, all meals will be picnics. Bar a few potatoes flung into the oven to bake, all cooking stops and eating becomes a forage into a squirrelled hoard of treats: the jars, tins, balsawood boxes and less pretty but functional vacpacs, inside which lie the delicate results of ‘cures’ achieved using sugar, salt, booze or smoke.
When we moved into the new house, we felt lucky to have a pear tree in our garden. How grown up, we thought. Then September came and the tree started raining fruit. Masses of fruit. Our green and pleasant lawn transformed into a carpet of greeny-yellowy-brown pears, which squelched gruesomely underfoot. I invited my children and nephews to help, offering them 5p for every pear they picked up. Big mistake.
Christmas is a time of celebration and giving thanks. In the old days we did this by feasting on meat. Whether it was a goose or a turkey at the centre of the table, it was a treat. The whole family would understand where the animal came from and perhaps have contributed to feeding, killing and preparing it. Every morsel would be appreciated. Nothing would be wasted.
Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten this.
I’m a real sucker for Christmas. I still have home-made decorations, angels and hanging ornaments made by the children 35 years ago. Our old wheelbarrow, rusted and full of holes, nonetheless gets a coat of red paint each year to turn it into Father Christmas’s cart. (The reindeer that pulls it is a rocking horse with battered cardboard antlers and tinsel trappings.) Year after year I patiently tie cotton loops to Quality Street toffees and hang them on a silvered, now rather shabby, branch.