Cheerful meanderings: Caret, by Adam Mars-Jones, reviewed

The novelistic tube or nozzle through which experience is squeezed in order to be bletted on the page in words, and in turn create the illusion of experience in the reader, is a slender one. Novelists have often perversely focused on the narrowest of lives. Xavier de Maistre wrote an entire travelogue in the 1790s about 42 days spent in his room, while Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s debut novel in 1985 was about a character refusing to leave his bathroom.  Should undertakers ever have suntans? And when does ‘mummy’ become ‘mum’ as a form of address? These spectacular exercises in technique present a parallel to what has always been the case, the

Frederic Raphael settles old scores with a vengeance

Last Post is a collection of reminiscences, anecdotes and a settling of old scores by Frederic Raphael in the form of imaginary letters to many of the people who have been part of his long life. You might expect a nonagenarian’s critical faculties to have ‘mellowed by the stealing hours of time’, but far from it. Raphael’s intelligence and acerbic wit are undiminished.  George Steiner suffers a sustained attack for being gauche, malicious and too obviously ambitious Those who have crossed his path will be aware of his ability to ‘verbalise easily’ and, as he himself confesses: ‘It is one of my failings that I know how to hurt people.’

Jim Ede and the glories of Kettle’s Yard

Jim Ede started early. At the age of 12 he used £8 of his hard-won savings to buy a Queen Anne desk. No bicycle, air pistol or football for him: this solid piece of old furniture was the thing, the first step in a long life of acquiring objects that lived, breathed and spoke to him. To call him a compulsive collector is to understate the passion that over the years saw the desk followed by an avalanche of stuff, from porcelain and glasses to pebbles and feathers, textiles and above all paintings, drawings and sculpture. Each acquisition admired, loved, cherished and shared for its uniqueness – what Gerard Manley

What the Cambridge dons drink

In June last year, King’s College Cambridge made more than £1 million from an auction of just 41 lots from its wine cellar. Not bad for a college that until just a few years ago had a hammer and sickle flag hanging in its student bar. But the Marxist sympathies of some of its legendary fellows and students stand little chance against the viticultural genius of the cellar’s buyer: Peter de Bolla, a scholar of 18th century literature and aesthetics. Included in the bonanza sale were 12 bottles of 1999 Echezeaux, an apparently legendary grand cru from Henri Jayer, for which someone bid £100,000. De Bolla had bought them on

Shamebridge: why is Cambridge so embarrassed about its past?

Finding Cambridge’s ugly side isn’t easy, but a walking tour of the city promises to show you it. Uncomfortable Cambridge, which bills itself as the ‘perfect introductory tour’ of the city, suggests tourists are wrong to think this is a place of beauty. Rather, Cambridge is a place we should be ashamed of – or at least feel a bit awkward about. The university is at the heart of the one-and-a-half hour tour, which costs £14 per person. Our guide begins by telling us that Cambridge isn’t as guilty as Oxford, which is good news – but it’s mostly downhill from there. St John’s College, where William Wilberforce and Thomas

Shame should not be heritable

Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope claims it was ‘inevitable’ that a university ‘as long-established as Cambridge’ would have links to slavery. Now that faculties gorge on racial guilt as Cambridge dons once famously feasted on roasted swans, what was really inevitable is that a body christened ‘The Advisory Group on the Legacies of Enslavement’ would find links to slavery. Why, it must have frustrated the authors of the report released last week that their three-year inquiry didn’t manage to dredge up any evidence that the university ever directly owned slaves or plantations. Rather, it’s the money that was tainted; lucre having always passed through dirty hands somewhere along the line, there’s no

Prince Charles and a living history lesson

When I was a lobby journalist, I never went to the State Opening of Parliament. I much regret it, because when I finally went this week, as a peer, there was no Queen. The printed programme on our seats described itself as ‘The ceremonial to be observed at the Opening of Parliament by Her Majesty The Queen’, but in fact the Prince of Wales stood, or rather, sat in, because of his mother’s ‘mobility issues’. He read well, sticking to her understanding that to give any expressiveness to the Queen’s Speech would be to verge on constitutional impropriety. Imagine how inappropriate it would have been, for example, if the phrase

The culture wars have crept into Oxbridge admissions

The characters in Sarah Vaughan’s thriller Anatomy of a Scandal include rich Oxford undergraduates from Eton whose main preoccupations are drinking and trashing rooms. They are what it is fashionable to call ‘privileged white males’; while the typical female Oxbridge student is ‘slim, tall, well dressed. Entitled… they knew they belonged there’. The truth, however, is that although Eton is one of the top academic schools in the country, its ‘beaks’ are puzzled by the sharp reduction in the number of their brightest pupils gaining places at Oxbridge. The number of offers has halved between 2014 and 2021. Not very different to Vaughan’s narrative is the argument of the Sutton

Why Falklanders should fear China

In a lecture I recently gave to mark the approaching 40th anniversary of the Falklands War, one of the questions I asked was whether Argentina would have another go. I concluded it would not, because the military protection of the islands, neglected in 1982, was now strong. In passing, though, I did note that China now has a close relationship with Argentina, over arms trading, the hog industry, soybeans, help with the pandemic etc. Argentina, I said, was now likelier to support China, not the West, in international forums. This week, Xi Jinping has declared his support for Argentina’s claim to ‘the full exercise of sovereignty’ over the islands. This

The CCP training programme at the heart of Cambridge

‘Use the past to serve the present,’ declares the website of the China Centre of Jesus College, Cambridge. It seems a sensible motto, until you know that it’s the first half of a maxim of Chairman Mao’s, and that the second half is ‘make the foreign serve China’. The China Centre is directed by Professor Peter Nolan, a fellow of Jesus and an expert on China’s economy. In the 1980s, he studied China’s collective farms and edited a volume that referred to itself as ‘a preliminary attempt to construct a new socialist political-economic strategy for Britain’. Nolan helped to advise Wen Jiabao, China’s former prime minister, on entry into the

Is Putin the reason my house is so cold?

Justin Webb is normally one of the least self-righteous BBC presenters, but he was out-Maitlising rivals on the Today programme on Tuesday. In that special, shocked tone broadcasters usually reserve for stories about racism or paedophilia, Webb contrasted ‘the final goodbyes not said’ by those who followed the rules with the Prime Minister’s birthday party/gathering in the Cabinet Room. He quoted Adam Wagner, ‘the human rights lawyer and Covid rules expert’, that it had been ‘obviously a birthday party’. It was ‘not denied’, Webb gravely intoned, ‘there was birthday cake’. How does he prevent himself bursting out laughing? The longer this story runs, now with added police, the more preposterous

Is Cambridge university ashamed of Winston Churchill?

When I first started at Churchill College, Cambridge, I was proud that I had joined an institution whose very existence was a testament to the legacy of a personal and national hero. As I walked around the college grounds, I felt that I was now part of a community that was much bigger than myself; a community partly defined by the life and times of our country’s greatest leader. Standing for the college toast at my first formal dinner, the words ‘To Sir Winston, and the Queen’ almost made me believe that my own life was now, in a small but important way, linked to the life of the great

The legacy of Stephen Toope

Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, has begun this academic year by announcing it will be his last in the post. Professor Toope says, no doubt truthfully, that he wants to see more of his Canadian family, dissevered from him by Covid. But I think it reasonable to relate his departure to wider issues. When he arrived in 2017, the ‘Golden Era’ of UK/Chinese relations still, in theory, existed. Cambridge uncritically welcomed Chinese government and business participation. In 2019, speaking in China, Professor Toope hailed the China Development Forum’s ‘Greater Opening Up for Win-Win Cooperation’ and praised President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. A preface composed in his name

China tightens its grip on Cambridge

The revelations this week of the alarming influence of Huawei within the Cambridge Centre for Chinese Management provide the latest evidence of the tightening grip of China on Britain’s leading university. The Times reports that three out of four directors of the centre — part of the university’s Judge Business School — have ties to the telecoms giant, which has close links to the Chinese Communist party. The centre’s ‘chief representative’ is a former vice-president of the company who has been paid by the Chinese government. An honorary fellow of the centre wrote a book praising Huawei’s ‘ability to transform the intellectual elite into a band of soldiers with the

How the ancients showed their true colours

In the 18th century, art historians’ admiration for the beauty of white-ish ancient Greek marble statuary led people to draw conclusions, on the back of their belief in classical ‘authority’, about white superiority. This, we are told, turned many classicists into racists. Today some members of the Cambridge Classics Faculty feel the white-ish plaster-cast replicas of those statues in their museum ‘entrench[es] racism’ in the same way. Their proposal is to put up a notice about it. Wow. Go, Cambridge! That’ll show those racists! And surely those still disgustingly white originals all over the world need notices as well. Two things need to be said. This is a modern ‘problem’:

What Dominic Cummings gets wrong

Anyone who thinks Boris Johnson lacks statecraft should pay attention to Dominic Cummings’s attacks on him. They often to seem to show the opposite of what Dom intends. Cummings now reveals that, in January 2020, he and his allies were saying: ‘By the summer, either we’ll all have gone from here or we’ll be in the process of trying to get rid of [Johnson] and get someone else in as prime minister.’ In fact, neither happened. By November, however, Cummings was (to use Mr Pooter’s joke) going; Boris stayed. The winner of the then still recent landslide election victory presumably discovered about his adviser’s seditious conversations and, reasonably, did not

Letters: How to save Cambridge’s reputation

Save the parish Sir: The Revd Marcus Walker eloquently describes the crisis that has taken hold in the Church of England (‘Breaking faith’, 10 July). He correctly states that the church belongs to the people of England and not to the archbishops, bishops or clergy. As he wrote, the costs of parish clergy are not a ‘key limiting factor’. They should be the church’s first priority in terms of costs. Stipendiary parish clergy play a vital role in bringing the Christian gospel and pastoral care to their communities. Without properly trained and ordained clergy, there would be no holy communion, no absolution and remission of our sins and no church

Should trains have mask and non-mask carriages?

In deciding whether or not to wear a mask after 19 July, I am sure Boris Johnson is right that one must consider the feelings of others. But I notice this consideration is argued only one way: those not wearing masks are asked to consult the sensitivities of those wearing them. Should not people who insist on continuing to wear masks also be invited to reflect on whether their behaviour might upset the unmasked? After all, in a culture long committed to showing your face as a mark of trust, covering it is depressing and even intimidating for others. It makes people almost inaudible. Or perhaps the simpler answer on

Cambridge deserves better than Stephen Toope

Regular readers may be aware that in recent months I have been having a running-spat with a Canadian lawyer called Stephen Toope. I am rarely exercised by Canadian lawyers, but this particular one is the current Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, and he seems intent on running that crown jewel of an institution into the ground.  Since taking over as Vice-Chancellor, Mr Toope has been responsible for a wide array of anti-free speech initiatives through which, as I recently remarked in the Daily Telegraph, he appears to want to transform Cambridge University into something like the Canadian bar association, but without the thrills, or the pay. Anyhow – our spat came

The first step towards restoring the National Trust

It is poetically fitting that the resignation of the chairman of the National Trust, Tim Parker, was announced on the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. The collective mistakes that have so damaged the Trust’s reputation were bound up in the rush of many institutions to ‘take the knee’, metaphorically and literally. Immensely delicate questions about how best to study the connections of Trust properties with slavery and (ill-chosen word) ‘colonialism’ were rushed and politicised. The view inevitably spread that the Trust now bears an animus towards the past whose glorious buildings and landscapes it is supposed to protect so that millions may enjoy them. That animus is