Letters: the problem with Ozempic

At your service Sir: National service is a contentious issue with many people including the Armed Forces themselves (‘Identity crisis’, 1 June). National community service might be a far better option whereby everyone reaching the age of 18 would spend a year working in a care home, hospital, day nursery, park, graffiti cleaning, litter clearance and so on – all areas in which help is badly needed. We have a generation of young people badly affected by Covid isolation and screen addiction and this might help them feel more integrated into society. The discipline of having to be at work on time every day, the banning of screens during working

Letters: save our churches!

Free the C of E Sir: Patrick Kidd’s article on the shortcomings of today’s Church of England maintains the importance of the ‘volunteers in the pews’ who bind the church together (‘Miracle workers’, 18 May). He warns that these people ‘can so easily run away’. This is exactly what happened to the Church of Scotland in 1843 when the hierarchy got things badly wrong. The Great Disruption was caused by a disagreement over patronage: should a patron be the sole arbiter in hiring and firing ministers or did this undermine the spiritual independence of the congregation? The exit of more than 400 ministers from the Kirk’s General Assembly and the formation of

Confessions of a catnapper

As Christopher Snowdon recently pointed out, the past few governments have had a habit of passing laws that are either wildly ambitious or incredibly trivial, while neglecting the real problems Britain faces, such as the housing shortage, the productivity crisis and the eye-watering dysfunction of the NHS. An example of the former is the net-zero emissions law passed in 2019, as if the energy policy of a small island in the North Sea can affect the world’s climate. An example of the latter is a bill that will make it a criminal offence to get cats to follow you down the road. Believe it or not, this had its second

The naming of cats

All sorts of animals have been kept as pets over the centuries. We know of sparrows in Catullus and John Skelton. There is a badger with a collar in a fresco by Signorelli – probably not much more biddable than the lobster Gerard de Nerval supposedly took for walks in Paris. The word ‘puss’ seems not to have referred to cats before the late 19th century but to hares, either a pet one (William Cowper had three, of whom Puss was sweet-natured and Tiney ‘the surliest of his kind’), or one being hunted in Surtees. Dogs always occupied a special place, with names and a position in the household. Cats

A choice of this year’s gift books

Obviously, the best and funniest gift book out this Christmas is my own Still a Bit of Snap in the Celery (Abacus, £16.99), about the horrors and delights of being 60, but I am far too humble and modest to mention it, so I won’t. Very nearly as good is Bob Cryer’s Barry Cryer: Same Time Tomorrow? (Bloomsbury, £20), a timely biography of his father, the legendary comedian and comic writer who died at a great age last year. I knew Barry a little –I used to go up to Hatch End, where he lived, with my friend Mark Mason and meet him in his local pub – and I

Is your pet killing the planet?

As a travel writer, I used to joke about the so-called ‘downsides of the job’. The stupidly complex shower-fixture in the five-star Maldivian Paradise. The unexpected commission to go to Denmark in winter. The vague but real sting of disappointment upon realising that the free hotel pillow-chocolate is actually a mint. But in recent years a genuine and troubling downside has arisen. When I meet someone and tell them what I do, the listener often winces, perhaps with a hint of moral superiority, and says something like: ‘Don’t you feel guilty about your carbon footprint? You’re killing the planet!’ This query pains me because, while I may question a few

Move fast to snap up one of Elizabeth Blackadder’s sleek cats at the Scottish Gallery

If there’s one thing the internet knows, it’s that cats sell. The Scottish painter Elizabeth Blackadder, who died in 2021 at the age of 89, knew it too. Her sinuous, characterful cat pictures, watercolours mostly but also oils and prints, helped cement her place as the nation’s favourite painter. She was an establishment favourite too, becoming the first woman to be elected to both the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Academy in London. In 1995, her cats adorned a set of Royal Mail stamps and, in 2001, she became the first woman to be appointed as Her Majesty’s Painter and Limner, a position unique to the Royal Household of

Letters: Why we obeyed lockdown

Why we allowed it Sir: In her article ‘Why didn’t more people resist lockdown?’ (3 September), Lionel Shriver partially answers her own question. Priti Patel told us it was our public duty to shop our neighbours if they had three friends to tea, and our previously invisible police force started to patrol parks and beaches with unprecedented vigour, with a threat of £1,000 fines for malfeasance. There was no eagerness, but the public were glued to the nightly broadcasts from No. 10, where the PM told us we would be little better than murderers if we didn’t obey the diktats. The fear all this created is still evident as I

How crazy was Louis Wain?

Before Tom Kitten, before Felix the Cat, before Thomas ‘Tom’ Cat, Sylvester James Pussycat Sr, Top Cat and Fat Freddy’s Cat, there were the cats of Louis Wain. The Wain cat came in a variety of breeds and colours: black and white, tabby, marmalade, white and blue (sky blue rather than Persian). But it always had the same disconcerting look in its wide, glassy eyes with the dilated pupils. It looked bombed out of its tiny mind. The original Wain cat was a black-and-white kitten called Peter belonging to a young late-Victorian magazine illustrator and his sick wife. In 1884 the 24-year-old Louis Wain had married his sisters’ governess, Emily

Letters: Immunity passports are nothing to fear

Nothing to fear Sir: Many of us await the day when we can travel abroad for much-anticipated holidays — but surely there is a distinction between immunisation passports and Tony Blair-type IDs (‘Papers, please’, 13 February)? If a country requires you to be immunised to travel there in order to protect its citizens against Covid, then I would be happy to have that ‘passport’ requirement. It is quite different from carrying ID with you in your own country. Let’s face it, the danger from Covid will fade in time, and the ‘passport’ requirement along with it. After all we happily travel with a passport in our pockets to show who

Salmond, Sturgeon and why The Spectator went to court

Did Nicola Sturgeon lie to the Scottish parliament? A Holyrood committee into the now infamous Alex Salmond affair has been looking into what she knew and when she knew it. In its possession is Salmond’s explosive written evidence, which contradicts her account. So who is telling the truth? This SNP-chaired inquiry has been in no rush to find the answer. Last month, it made the extraordinary decision not to publish the Salmond submission at all — blaming legal problems. There’s a risk, it said, that his account might identify some of the women who complained against him, thereby defying a court order to protect anonymity. Without the key evidence, its

‘People confuse sadness with darkness’: the complicated world of Mary Gaitskill

In the early 1990s, the American novelist Mary Gaitskill suffered an abrupt awakening. ‘I lived in New York, I didn’t have a television, I didn’t listen to the radio. I didn’t even read magazines or newspapers very often. I was really too preoccupied with my own existence, which was hand to mouth a lot of the time,’ she says. ‘But when I was a little better off, I began to pay attention. I did get a TV. I did listen to the news a lot. And I was just like, holy shit. What a weird fucking world.’ What particularly astonished her, she says, is how central the fashion industry had

Gift books for Christmas — reviewed by Marcus Berkmann

We have a fine crop of Christmas gift books this year, so good that some of them actually qualify as real books. This is a rare and beautiful thing. What Cats Want (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is by Dr Yuki Hattori, billed here as ‘Japan’s leading cat doctor’, as though anyone is going to argue with that. It’s simply a guide to understanding your cat — clear, concise, very pleasingly designed and with some lovely, quintessentially Japanese illustrations, mainly of cats. Of course, if you don’t like cats it’s really not going to help you very much; but for those of us who are at least partially obsessed by these beautiful, mysterious,

Today’s undergraduates are customers – and the customer is always right

If you’re looking for a sign of the academic times, you could do worse than consider the image, published in newspapers recently, of Mr Chan King Wai at a solemn ceremony in China last year. There is Mr Chan, grinning stiffly but with real pride, dressed in a scholar’s cap with a gold tassel, and a red and shiny purple gown. Around his neck, a little incongruously, is a stripy Brideshead-type scarf. He looks like he has presented himself for Oxbridge theme week on RuPaul’s Drag Race. He is showing a certificate to the camera. Holding the other end of the certificate, and mustering more of a grimace than a

Dear Mary: How do I tell my neighbours I forgot to feed their cat?

Q. We invited two friends to supper in London. As they came in they said they should order their taxi home before we began to drink as they now had to pre-book. They then discussed the booking time between themselves and agreed on 11.30 p.m. But Mary, we wanted them to leave at 10.30 at the latest. How could we have conveyed this without making them feel unwelcome? — Name and address withheld A. You can pre-empt overstaying in future by outlining a time scale as you issue the invitation. For example, you could say to them: ‘Could you possibly come early, e.g. 7 or 7.30, as we have to

Letters: Why is the problem of working-class white boys not considered worth solving?

Left-behind boys Sir: Christopher Snowdon’s perceptive and informative article (‘The lost boys’, 18 July) reflects perfectly my own experiences in trying to highlight the under-attainment of white working-class boys in higher education, particularly in chemistry, a frontline Stem subject. I was elected to the Inclusion and Diversity Committee of the Royal Society of Chemistry to investigate this matter. Despite strong acknowledgment of the under-representation of ‘white working-class males’, any positive action remains painfully slow. It is abundantly clear that while white working-class males are the largest group of disadvantaged young people in this country, their cause is the least fashionable and the problem not considered worth solving. Equally disturbingly, my

She was just a damn cat – and I loved her

I’ve never dug a grave before. But that was how I spent my Sunday afternoon. Three feet is awfully deep to dig, and three feet is how deep you have to go if you don’t want foxes to turn a little tragedy into a horror-comedy. I laboured till the head of the spade went out of sight. My children were eating burgers from the barbecue a few feet away, and I worried that they might guess what I was up to. Thank God for the heroic incuriosity of children. I told the youngest something about planting a tree and it seemed to satisfy him. The truth would have been ‘planting

Top of my must-watch mustn’t-watch: Cats revisited

At the outset of lockdown I gave you my list of top mustn’t-watch films — that is, the ones that aren’t worth the bother — with the rider that when Cats is released digitally it will, however, likely be a must-watch mustn’t-watch. ‘I absolutely must watch this mustn’t-watch,’ you may even have said to yourself, after reading some of the wonderfully terrible reviews. (The Daily Telegraph gave it zero stars. Variety said it was one of those ‘once-in-a-blue-moon embarrassments’.) And it is as hoped. In fact, it is such a must-watch mustn’t-watch that I watched it twice and never stopped marvelling, even if I will be forever haunted by Ian

Riveting – and disgusting: BFI’s ‘Dogs v Cats’ and ‘Eating In’ collections reviewed

This week I’d like to point you in the direction of the British Film Institute and its free online archive collections, which are properly free. There is no signing up for one of those ‘free trials’ which means that, somewhere down the line, you’ll discover you’ve been paying £4.99 a month for something you didn’t want. And it’s certainly excellent value for the money you don’t pay, as there are 65 of these collections, grouped under various headings — ‘Football on Film’, ‘Black Britain on Film’ — although I plumped for ‘Eating In’, because it’s all any of us do now, and ‘Cats v Dogs’, as if that were even

How The Spectator discovered Helen Mirren

One of the first jobs I ever did for The Spectator was to find out if professional wrestlers fixed the outcome of their fights in advance. This was 1965. The editor who wanted to know was Iain Macleod, a future chancellor of the exchequer filling in time while his party was out of office by dabbling in journalism. He turned out to be an addict of the professional wrestling screened on Saturday afternoon TV. In spite of the spinal disease that had immobilised his back and neck, he mimed what he meant by throttling himself without getting up from his chair in an Indian deathlock. His deputy editor, his political