Notes on...

The slow death of Christmas cake

Wouldn’t you just know it? Christmas cake, as in dense fruitcake covered with marzipan and usually tooth-destroying royal icing, is being displaced by chocolate cake. Almost half of a sample of 2,000 people surveyed by Ocado said they’d prefer chocolate to fruitcake. The trend is represented by Nigella Lawson, who is making something called a

The biggest music feuds of all time

Sad news from the Hall and Oates camp, where ‘I Can’t Go For That’ has become ‘I Can’t Go Within A Specified Distance of You’, Daryl Hall having taken out a restraining order on John Oates. Actually, we don’t know whether a distance is specified, as the details of the order remain secret. But we

Should you ever eat wild salmon?

When I say ‘Scottish salmon’ what do you see? I bet it’s a muscular 20-pounder flashing up a river, or a silver grilse leaping out of the water for the sheer joy of it. I bet it’s not a flabby beast, covered in sea lice, possibly half-choked by micro-jellyfish in its gills, living in waters

In defence of Rickshaws

London rickshaws, or pedicabs, are always described as a scourge. They’re too bright and they’re too loud, the charge sheet reads: they block up the road and rip people off. Last week, the government announced in the King’s Speech that Transport for London will be given powers to license them. Drivers will have their fares

In defence of foie gras

Apoll shows that nine out of ten Brits want to ban the import of foie gras. Crumbs! Haven’t they got anything more important to worry about? The Times says about 200 tons are imported from Europe every year. I only wish some would come my way. Though the same article says Waitrose stocks this greatest

How Vegemite took over the world

Vegemite is 100 years old. The first yeast paste, Marmite, was introduced in the UK in 1902, named after the French cooking pot; New Zealand Marmite, currently a quite different product, emerged in 1919. The mite suffix had nothing to do with might, but the association was irresistible, and Vegemite was created in Australia in

Are Ouija boards really that scary?

The name is the only clue you need. The French and German words for ‘yes’ show that the board will always tell you what you want to hear. Mind you, Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard, who invented the Ouija board for their novelty games company, claimed that Bond’s sister-in-law, a spiritualist, was given the name

What could be more Shakespearean than a ghost?

In the final series of the Netflix programme The Crown, Princess Diana will appear as a ghost. We are told that her apparitions will be ‘thoughtful and sensitive’ – which is rather disappointing for anyone hoping for her to have a recurring role, like Marty Hopkirk in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), perhaps wearing that white

Why are we superstitious about Friday the 13th?

Uzeste contains 387 people and a dead pope. The tiny French village is one of the less glamorous papal resting places, where the earthly remnants of the unfortunate Clement V await the General Resurrection. How much of Clement is left is hard to tell. As his body lay in state after he died in 1314,

The joy of ‘ugly’ Birkenstocks

Fifteen years ago, when I was a teenager, wearing Birkenstocks meant you were flatfooted or you had no interest in attention from men. While the rest of us clip-clopped around in heels, it was only a brave few who would choose the flat sandal. Your geography teacher might wear them, or your mum when she

The cult of the gilet

Last summer I attended a reunion at my prep school. The occasion was the leaving of a much-loved master. I thought that the appropriate thing to wear would be a tweed jacket in honour of prep-school masters everywhere. I found myself woefully overdressed. Pretty much all of my contemporaries were wearing gilets. It was a

The senseless ban on snus

As the government considers banning disposable vapes because they are thought to appeal to children, it is worth reflecting on the strange saga of the EU’s ban on snus, a Swedish smokeless tobacco product that delivers nicotine into the body via a small pouch placed under the lip. The story begins when Edwina Currie was

The greatest – and strangest – prison breaks in history

Poor old Daniel Khalife. He must have thought his exit from HMP Wandsworth, hidden underneath a delivery van, would win ‘Most Creative Prison Escape of the Week’. But actually that title had already been nabbed by Danelo Cavalcante, who stood in a narrow external passageway at Pennsylvania’s Chester County prison, leaned forward so his hands

The pride of pouring perfect concrete

In the summer of 2020 I was awarded a degree in history from Bristol University – the culmination of three years’ work, late nights and great expense – but it is my concrete pump operator licence which sits above the mantelpiece. My father considers my ability to pump concrete at a rate of one cubic

Luis Rubiales and the weirdness of a kiss

A kiss is just a kiss, no? But when it’s Jenni Hermoso, the forward of the victorious Spanish women’s football team, on the receiving end, and the president of the Spanish football federation, Luis Rubiales, doing the kissing, and it’s during the official post-match ceremony in front of an interested global audience… it’s different.  Immediately

In praise of Boris’s nemesis: the great crested newt

Britain is not blessed with an abundance of amphibians. There are just seven native varieties. The loss of ponds – whether in gardens, farmland or in areas earmarked for development – has seen a dramatic decline in habitat for one of the seven in particular, the great crested newt (or GCN for short). Its rarity

My morning spin class with Rishi Sunak

It was 7.31 a.m. and I was late for my Notting Hill spin class. That meant the lights weren’t on when I entered the studio and scrambled to find my bike. Bleary-eyed, I noticed a man waving at me as I approached Bike 49. It was Rishi Sunak, on the bike next to mine. ‘I

Who’s afraid of giant hogweed?

Giant hogweed is a troublesome and expansive species. But it is not, as the tabloids inevitably describe it every summer, ‘Britain’s most dangerous plant’. Many garden favourites – yew, laburnum, castor-oil plant (the source of ricin), for example – can actually kill you. The answer to living with these difficult but beautiful organisms isn’t knee-jerk