‘Many happy returns’: an exclusive Jack Reacher story by Lee Child

Tony Jackson had worked 30 years for MI5. He was a grammar-school boy recruited straight out of his redbrick university, after sitting a fast-track civil service exam. His results had not impressed the civil service itself, but clearly something in his psychometric paper had caught someone’s eye. Two weeks after his formal rejection he received a plain and enigmatic letter inviting him to an appointment at a hotel near Regent Street. Just after his arrival he had been required to sign the Official Secrets Act. Just before his departure he had become a government agent. Thirty years later he still was, now an Assistant Director, in charge of all his

Have Christmas cards had their day?

The festive season brings with it many enjoyably trivial decisions to fret over. Sprouts with or without chestnuts and bacon? To tastefully colour-scheme the Christmas tree or throw every garish bauble at it? Presents before or after lunch? This year, however, I have another decision to make and it’s one that I’m finding surprisingly tough: to write Christmas cards or just let that tradition… go? Usually by this point in December I’m scribbling away, determined to get my 70-odd cards written and sent while they can still reach their destinations with a second-class stamp. (Let’s not mention the foreign cards; they always arrive late.) While it does sometimes feel like a

The Lord of Misrule and the lost spirit of Christmas past

The Lord of Misrule is surely the jolliest spirit of Christmas past. He is certainly the best named. He used to gambol through cities and courts, churchyards and dining rooms, telling jokes, performing tricks and spreading good cheer. Society shook itself upside down at his coming, so knaves played at being kings, children became miniature tyrants and noblemen misplaced their manners (an exercise in which some, admittedly, needed little assistance). His origins can be traced back to ancient Rome, where each December masters and slaves swapped places for the festival of Saturnalia and engaged in various acts of tomfoolery while gorging on food and wine. These traditions survived the advent

The power of the royal Christmas message

Today, shortly before 3 p.m., there will be a collective heave as backsides – weighed down from turkey and roast potatoes – are prised from dining chairs and plonked on to sofas to tune into the King’s speech. So I very much hope. For the royal Christmas broadcast is important, and this year’s of course marks a new era. This afternoon our televisions will bring us not only the first Christmas message from the new King, but indeed the first from any King. For while the tradition of the Christmas message began in 1932 under King George V, the first Christmas broadcast to be televised was not until 1957, and

The King’s speech

Christmas dinner is the meal we love to hate

Many of the elements of the Christmas spread have more detractors than admirers. Turkey can seem an undistinguished bird thrust into an undeserved limelight: bland and unwieldy, it’s a far cry from a rich goose or even a regular, moist chicken. Carrots and parsnips – uninspiring. Bread sauce resembles the gruel ladled out to Oliver Twist. Christmas pudding – dense and gluey. And Brussels sprouts, well, enough said. Every year, Christmas dinner-haters crawl out of the woodwork to air their disgust at the traditional meal and find themselves given a surprisingly sympathetic hearing. A 2020 YouGov poll indicated that only around half of us, for example, consider turkey part of our

The joy of spending Christmas Day abroad

Spending Christmas Day abroad is, as they say, ‘Marmite’ – you either love the idea, or you hate it. But it seems there are plenty of us who love it. The Association of British Travel Agents estimates that five million Britons will escape abroad for Christmas and new year this month, with yesterday expected to be the busiest day for departures. Many are destined for sun-soaked destinations such as the Canary Islands, Southern Spain, Turkey, Barbados, the Middle East and Mexico. And I know exactly what the appeal is. My husband, young son and I have spent six of the past eight Christmases overseas – most of them at our second home

Why it’s time to go back to church

Somewhere in the midst of the hurly-burly antics and preoccupations of life, I think maybe, I’m probably a Christian. Not the type who sings in church with his eyes shut, but an extremely moderate, unthinking Anglican for whom the prospect of the existence of nothing is too painful for words. That makes me the sort of Anglican who starts to pray once the 747 has been in freefall for six seconds or more over the Atlantic, or the type that looks heavenward when Harry Kane is about to take the most important penalty in the recent history of English football. As a result, the Great Being plays precious little part

Forget Love Actually: the best alternative Christmas films

It’s become one of the traditions of the modern festive period: arguing about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. The explosive 1988 film features, you may recall, a vest-clad Bruce Willis confounding Alan Rickman and his terrorist cohorts’ evil plans in a Los Angeles skyscraper on Christmas Eve – and it’s peppered throughout with fir trees and tinsel.   Some claim this means it should take its place as a festive staple alongside more conventional classics of the season, It’s a Wonderful Life et al. Opponents furiously insist that a proper Christmas film shouldn’t feature machine guns and explosions, but instead depict rather more heartwarming scenes. Surely the solution is to

Brendan O’Neill

Happy Excessmas: why shouldn’t we eat, drink and be merry?

Christmas is coming and it isn’t only the goose that’s getting fat – so are you. That’s according to the skinny, pie-dodging miserable lot who make up the public-health lobby. For these people – who are living proof that a lack of sugar makes you cranky – the countdown to Christmas isn’t an opportunity to excite kids about Santa’s sack or splurge on gifts for loved ones; no, it’s an ideal time to freak people out about the dangers of eating and drinking too much. Every year it’s the same. It starts in November. An alcohol-awareness group (a fancy term for the neo-temperance movement) and obesity experts (a grand title

How to make eggnog

Let Bing sing about a white Christmas, if he insists. My kind of Christmas is more eggnog-toned: yellowy, like old-fashioned incandescent string lights; rich, like real velvet ribbon on presents; topped with pale froth of the most non-utilitarian and fluffy kind; sweet, with a kick of rum or bourbon to redeem it from sentimentality; stippled with a dark sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg on top to ginger up the olfactory receptors. Uncanonical as it may be to view this time of year through an eggnog-tinted lens, it seems to me that food and wassail are more essential to Christmas than snow. What is the celebration without culinary traditions, even though one man’s

Peace on Earth? 10 films about Christmas on the front line

Christmas may ostensibly be a time of goodwill to all men, but war rarely takes a break for the festive season – as events in Ukraine sadly demonstrate. Here are ten films set during Yuletide where the front line is front and centre: Castle Keep (1968) – Amazon Rent/Buy Sydney Pollack’s (Three Days of the Condor) Castle Keep is set during the Germans’ failed Ardennes offensive of December 1944 and stars Burt Lancaster as one-eyed US Major Abraham Falconer. But if from that description you expect a meat-and-potatoes world war two actioner, think again. The picture is an elliptical, surreal mediation on art, war, mortality and time, with Falconer’s battered group

Beyond Dickens: the best Christmas short fiction

Claire Keegan’s Booker-shortlisted Small Things Like These this year revived the tradition of Christmas short fiction. It’s a deftly done parable about cruelty and kindness in the run-up to Christmas, with actual snow – and tears.   Although Keegan’s novella eventually lost out to Shehan Karunatilaka for the Booker, it perhaps served a greater purpose than prizes: it was a reminder of the value of stories that connect us with our humanity, particularly around this time of year.  It was also a reminder that cultural consumption at Christmas needn’t merely be about overloading on films. There’s much to be said for the quiet refuge from festive overload offered by reading – and

What should be on your Christmas cheeseboard?

No overindulgent gourmand worth his salt fails to own a stilton scoop. Mine has a bone handle and Mappin & Webb silver plate. It has an ingenious contraption to release the cylindrical pellet of cheese: a bit like those retro ice cream scoops that, with a little squeeze, crack like a whip, the metal slicing under ice as vicious as a mousetrap. My stilton scoop is gentler. One releases the mouldy blue at one’s own pace, until it falls sensuously on to the plate. It is used just once a year, at Christmas, like the cookie-cutter and the nut-cracker. Why this extended detour about a kitchen utensil? Because one cannot

The pick of this year’s Christmas TV

Has a certain media mogul had a visit from three ghosts recently? I only ask as this year’s Sky Christmas schedule is so packed with treats and big-hitters that it can’t possibly be explained by hard-nosed commercialism. An outbreak of sudden seasonal generosity seems to be the only explanation. Whatever has triggered Sky’s largesse, the result is a little something for everyone – including those of us best described as jaded anti-Christmas types. I was particularly pleased to see the return of Billie Piper in the deliciously sardonic I Hate Suzie. From Succession writer Lucy Prebble, it’s the chaos comedy that makes Fleabag feel like Emily in Paris. If you

Why a nightcap is a dream Christmas present

Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet? I ask because there is a must-have item for 2022 that may have so far escaped your attention. And that’s a small irony because at some point in the weeks ahead it will almost certainly be staring you in the face. Whether you’re reading A Christmas Carol and enjoying John Leech’s illustrations, or relishing in the monochrome horror of Alastair Sim in Brian Desmond Hurst’s gothic version of 1951, or enjoying once again Michael Caine’s peerless performance in the Muppets’ musical adaption, you will notice that one of Ebenezer Scrooge’s nocturnal accessories is never missing: the nightcap. You don’t have to be a

The art of the stocking-filler book

The best stocking-filler present I received last year was the bumper Christmas edition of The Spectator. But it wasn’t the only erudite reading matter crammed into a moth-eaten ski sock. Nestled under a mouldy tangerine and some chocolate money destined to be stolen by my children were: How it Works: The Dad (Ladybird for Grown-Ups); You Do Have the Authority Here!: #What Would Jackie Weaver Do?; and The Best of Matt, 2021. They now jostle for space in a downstairs loo sprinkled with other half-read stocking fillers chronicling the past two decades: Schott’s Original Miscellany; The Curious Incident of the WMD in Iraq; Does Anything Eat Wasps?; Crap Towns; Fifty

Turkey isn’t the only option for a Christmas feast

Christmas is coming – but if the geese are getting fat, the turkeys aren’t terribly happy, cooped up indoors on account of avian flu. Around half of the free-range birds produced for Christmas in the UK have been culled or died due to the illness, according to the British Poultry Council – and for those that remain, the government’s anti-infection measures mean they aren’t ranging anything like as freely as before. Some butchers, including the Ginger Pig chain, have announced they aren’t selling turkey at all. So if we can’t get a happy turkey, what should we be eating on Christmas Day? Turkeys might seem like the stalwarts of the

The best cookbooks to give this Christmas

I love a good cookbook. In an age where endless variations on any recipe are no more than a few clicks away on the internet, there is still a certain magic to buying, or receiving, a physical, curated collection.  Cookbooks can teach you something in a way that individual online recipes can’t. Whether exploring a new cuisine or trying a new technique, cooking from a cookbook means you can build up a whole repertoire of dishes and hone new skills. I love that you can annotate the pages, and it doesn’t matter if they get mucky (I find you can always tell the best recipes in a book by how

Best of British: Christmas gifts for under £20

Christmas shopping has its challenges at the best of times. Oxford Street crowds and high street tat; Black Friday generating more excitement than a White Christmas. And this year will, for many, be more challenging than ever. Who needs the Grinch when the cost-of-living monster threatens to steal Christmas? When looking to keep down the cost of presents, gravitating towards well-known British heritage brands might seem counterintuitive. The ‘big box’ instinct sometimes kicks in: the bigger the package the more expensive it’ll look under the tree, we reason. And many of us are guilty of buying presents that are more gimmicky and flashy than genuinely likely to get good use.

How to survive the party season

December is here and it’s going to be murder out there from now until the new year. Spectactor Life writers explain how to get through it – from swerving bores and turning down invitations to lining your stomach and crashing with panache… Swerve bores Celia Walden When trying to escape the party bore, pick an excuse that’s as close to the truth as possible: ‘So sorry – just seen a man with a tray of bellinis,’ or ‘Be right back: I love pigs in blankets!’ It took me decades to work out that only the most realistic line won’t hamper the rest of your night. I gave up my one-time