In a couple of weeks’ time, David Cameron and George Osborne will arrive in China and witness at first hand an economic boom that is shaking the world. The British duo will doubtless receive a polite and outwardly respectful reception. But, as I discovered on a visit to Shanghai last week, Chinese diplomats and academics have noted the deep cuts in British spending — and they are drawing the obvious conclusions about the relative fortunes of the two nations.
Visitors to Thomas Hardy’s birthplace in Dorset, a small thatched cottage built by Hardy’s great-grandfather, used to be met by a bare house and a guide book. Now they are greeted by a fire in the grate and a curator at the parlour table, dispensing tea and cakes and chatting about the author’s childhood. Those irritated at such intrusion can walk through the house and enjoy the garden undisturbed.
Uncle Norman likes to talk about the year the mini-skirt was born. (The name has been changed to protect him.) It was 1965 and he was a law student living in Chelsea. And when the skirt arrived, he took a year off university, and spent it on the No. 22 bus on the King’s Road, following women up the stairs. At this point in the anecdote Uncle Norman usually closes his eyes. I mention Uncle Norman’s contribution to social history because mini-skirts are in the news again, this time in Italy, which I always thought was a place where men liked women.
To New York, for a benefit gala at Cipriani 42nd Street for the Norman Mailer Centre and Writers Colony. We are there as a team to present British GQ’s first student writing award to a 65-year-old mother of two: Helen Madden, who presented the children’s TV show Romper Room in the early 1970s and still looks about 40. She wrote the winning story, ‘Rod, Roy and Jerry Lee’, while doing a creative writing MA at Queen’s University in Belfast, and its hearty nature appealed to almost everyone on the panel of judges.
While waiting for the comprehensive spending review, I passed the time watching two clips from British Pathé newsreels of the late 1940s. One featured Welsh housewives moaning about Stafford Cripps’s budget — one so angry at the cut in cheese rations that she threatened to shoot the Labour chancellor. The other clip, in characteristically uplifting tones, unveiled the Bristol Brabazon — the elephantine passenger plane with wings longer than Waterloo Bridge which was supposed to bolster the British aeronautical industry.
Every now and again you read about ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’ — a curious affliction suffered by parents who are sad that their children have left home. It sounds like heaven to me. My wife and I should be, well, free as a bird now that all our little ones have fled to university and beyond. Those arduous parent evenings, competitive end-of-term picnics and final warnings from the bursar are already a distant memory.
I am not unemployed due to laziness. I have ambitions. I would like to be successful. I would like to have a beautiful, grounded wife, children, and earn a good crust. My grandfather, who died before I was born, was in the Navy during the second world war. In his field he was an important person who gained respect. I would like to gain respect too and to achieve my goals, but I find it very difficult because I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition on the autistic spectrum that produces impaired social skills, obsessions, high anxiety and, certainly in my case, extreme emotion and passion.