On a perfect winter morning, I mount a dapple grey horse in an icy farmyard a few minutes from the Prime Minister’s country home and prepare to go hunting with the Chipping Norton set. David Cameron’s local hunt, the Heythrop, is meeting just round the corner from where the PM lives, in the Oxfordshire village of Dean, and the Cotswold elite are out in force.
As we hunt, we will be skirting the estates of Jeremy Clarkson and Rebekah and Charlie Brooks.
This is not an article about hedonism. Oh, no. The Amalfi coast may be the favoured historical playground of the bad and the beautiful — from Tiberius to Sophia Loren and Gwyneth Paltrow — but my theme is one of culture. What is it about this rocky stretch of southwest Italy that has drawn such disparate artistes as Wagner, D.H. Lawrence, Turner, John Steinbeck and Gore Vidal? Oh, heck, you win. Let’s have some hedonism first.
The final instalment of the Twilight saga, Breaking Dawn: Part 2, premiered in Los Angeles last month, and the streets were thronged with its core audience of teenage girls and middle-aged gay men. But as the handsome cast strode up the red carpet, they were greeted by more than just hormonal screams. A group of religious conservatives showed up with placards and loud voices. The head of security rushed over to confront them, assuming they were there to protest against the film’s mix of ‘satanic’ vampires and dark eroticism.
‘If the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild.’ Heartlessly, this concludes the latest official report into the restoration of the Houses of Parliament. Four thousand miles away in New Delhi, it’s the same story. The Central Public Works Department has declared the constitutional masterpiece of Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker equally unfit for habitation.
So farewell then, Newsweek magazine, which published its last print issue this week. After 79 years — 15 of them as my employer — the venerable old rag is to disappear into an uncertain, web-only future.
Many newspapers and magazines have folded as advertising shrinks and readers go online but Newsweek is perhaps the first of the titans to fall. Its demise is all the more resonant because it was one side of one of the great twin peaks of the press: Time and Newsweek, the New York Times and the Washington Post, the Times and the Daily Telegraph.
On my most recent visit to Seville — the Andalusian city of proverbial fiestas and sunshine — the rain poured for days without stopping. The streets were almost deserted by lunchtime, with tourists taking refuge in the dozens of colourfully tiled tapas bars clustering under the shadow of the cathedral’s soaring bell tower, the Giralda. One day a local friend of mine took me to a newly opened place right in the heart of this district, yet hidden away on a side street, coldly modern in its design, clearly unappealing to tourists, and still barely known to anybody else.
I killed a badger the other day. I was driving at 40 at 6 a.m. on my way to hospital. I had been told I was first on their operations list. Two black lines divided by a white one dived at me from the dark and went under my left front wheel — bump! — and then almost instantly under the rear one — bump!
I glanced in the rearview mirror. Something badger-shaped lay still at the roadside. I thought about stopping, but by then I was into the roundabout leading onto the motorway.
For most Romans, there were no such things as ‘summer holidays’. Holidays were for the rich, who went to their Cape Cod equivalent: the bay of Naples, leaving the stench, filth and disease of malarial Rome for the tideless, sheltered bay (‘bay’ derives from the local resort Baiae), cool sea breezes, healthy spas and agreeable villas. They certainly did not tour islands and coastlines by gulet, as I do every year with the sublime Westminster Classic Tours, full of Spectator readers keen to see and know everything, and hear what the ancients thought about it too.
What do New Year resolutions mean? Nothing, I have discovered, unless you resolve your old year’s first. In September I was diagnosed with colon cancer and since then, I’ve had time to think about time. It seems as though my past years have collapsed, one after another, one into the other, until I can see my experiences both all at once and as a long train of hours. Everything I’ve been has brought me to where I am now.
Arriving at Marseilles’s Gare St Charles in the early hours of a balmy October night, the first marvel of the city that is pointed out to me — both proudly and affectionately — is a large, well-fed rat that pours itself into a nook in the stone wall of the station. ‘Welcome to Marseilles,’ says Oliver, my laconic host, pushing his bicycle along the street to avoid running into a trio of high-cheekboned Maghrebian hip-hop devotees.
It’s 5 a.m., a splashy grey dawn, and we’re out of here on easyJet. Palermo is another world of heat and brightness but we’re not stopping; at the port we board a catamaran which churns its way towards the Aeolian islands, the volcanic archipelago off the north-east corner of Sicily.
The islands are named after Aeolus, son of Zeus and god of the four winds, but there was scarcely a whisper of a breeze in the two weeks we were there.
A hundred years ago, travel writers commented, there was something peculiarly depressing about Menton — or Mentone as the British would say, recalling the days when the town situated on the Mediterranean border between France and Italy was an independent Italian-leaning state. It was depressing because wherever you looked there were people tottering palely along the promenade past the statue of Queen Victoria (who used to stay in a discreetly grand villa tucked among the hills) or lurking in the numerous hotels with Anglophone names.
There’s nothing like a financial crisis to bring out the worst in people. Witness the shocking rise of Golden Dawn, a bunch of Nazi thugs masquerading as a nationalist party, currently rampaging through the streets of Athens. Ironically, another unfortunate side effect of Greece’s colossal debt mountain has been a drop in the number of German tourists, deterred by angry locals burning effigies of Chancellor Merkel in SS gear.