Writing obituaries can be strangely life-affirming

In my line of work I sometimes owe a cock to Asclepius. The ancient Greeks believed that a sacrificial offering to Asclepius, the god of good health, could buy you time. Perhaps it worked in the case of Boris Johnson. On the night he was taken into intensive care, I had the digital team of the Times breathing down my neck. They wanted to know if I, the paper’s obituaries editor, had an obit ready to go straight up online, ahead of the print version. I was up until midnight making sure we had, updating and recasting our existing one, trying to get the tone right. The cock may have

The obituaries guide that fills me with terror

The Times’s internal guide to writing its obituaries has fallen into my hands. It adds new terrors to death. Questing after interest (‘the quirkier the better’), it invites obituarists to ask unusual questions about the dead: ‘Were they cold-hearted bastards in the workplace?’ ‘Did they enjoy baiting their neighbour’s dog and teaching their grandchildren to smoke?’ It also advocates ‘the gentle saying of the opposite of what is meant… If, for example, we say that the wife of XXXXX [here it names a well-known politician] “definitely was not once a high-class prostitute”, British readers would assume she definitely was’. The most entertaining obituaries ‘treat their subjects as if they were fictional

The Spectator’s notes | 23 March 2017

We keep being incited to find it heartwarming that Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley were known as the Chuckle Brothers. But what were they chuckling about? Their shared success at outwitting the British state. Both, though for opposite reasons, had made their careers out of harassing Britain, and both, in their later years, had acquired money, power and status by doing so. In the case of McGuinness and his gang, Britain greatly underplayed its hand. Having militarily beaten the IRA, successive British governments could have marginalised them, but instead they accepted them as authentic representatives of the Irish people who had to be included in any settlement. The process for

The Spectator’s Notes | 16 February 2017

How does Vladimir Putin think about the world? It becomes dangerously important to know. I still have not seen a revealing speech by or discussion with him. I have found out a bit more, however, about the two-hour private interview conducted with him by several young Etonians last summer. One reason they got into the room, it seems, is that Mr Putin wanted to know about Eton and why it produced 19 prime ministers. The boys explained that one of the school’s great advantages was its societies — Political, Literary, Cheese etc. — largely organised by them, not by masters. They said these brought them into contact with a wide range

In this digital age, should we worry about bank branch closures? Yes we should

Almost a decade after the financial crisis loomed, our high streets and town centres are full of life again: who ever thought consumers could sustain so many cafés, bakeries and nail bars? But the revival is being undermined by yet another wave of bank branch closures, leaving small businesses adrift and personal customers at the mercy of call centres and insecure, ill-designed online platforms. More than a thousand branches have closed over the past two years, and another 400 or so are scheduled to go soon. HSBC is showing the way with a savage cull of its network. Oh well, you might say, banking really ought to be a digital

‘Above all else, fun’

Alexander Chancellor’s ‘Long Life’ is over; but it was not nearly long enough. I was feeling rather gloomy last Friday, having just had our old terrier put down, when I opened The Spectator and was immediately cheered up by the first paragraph of Alexander’s column. It was so typical of the way that he often looked at the world, and of his delightfully quirky sense of humour, that he should relate a children’s song to the new President of the United States. Recalling Nellie the elephant and her trumpety-trump, he wrote: ‘I’m hoping against hope that Donald Trumpety-Trump will also say goodbye to the circus in Washington and return to

The Spectator’s Notes | 3 November 2016

It is a great relief that there will be no inquiry into the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ in 1984. The weirdness is that Mrs May’s people ever entertained the thought in the first place. The push for an inquiry is a classic example of the attempt by the aggrieved, usually on the left, to turn history into a trial. If we were to inquire into the miners’ strike, more than 30 years on, it would be far more pertinent — though still a very bad, divisive idea — to establish the full facts about how Arthur Scargill got money from Gaddafi’s Libya and was promised it by the Soviet Union. The

The Nissan test: can we really negotiate Brexit sector by sector?

I wrote last month that a key test of Brexit success will be whether Nissan is still making cars here in ten years’ time. A few days later, Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn issued a warning that ‘If I need to make an investment in the next few months and I can’t wait until the end of Brexit, then I have to make a deal with the UK government.’ The investment decision he referred to — expected by Christmas, which means before Brexit talks even begin — is whether to build the next Qashqai model at Sunderland or in France, to avoid tariffs on exports when we leave the single market.

The Spectator’s Notes | 11 August 2016

Those who want to revive grammar schools are accused of ‘bring backery’ — the unthinking idea that the past was better. But many of their accusers suffer from the rigid mindset of which they complain. They say that grammar schools ‘condemned most children to failure at the age of 11’, and that, even at their peak, grammars catered for less than 20 per cent of the school population. Why assume that the return of grammars must re-create either of these things? Grammar schools grew up, historically, in different ways and at different times. Then, in the mid‑20th-century mania for uniformity, they were standardised and, in the later 20th-century mania for comprehensives, almost

Despite rumours to the contrary, the high-speed loco has left the drawing board

There’s a lot of negativity around HS2, and I sniff a Brexit connection. You might think Leave campaigners whose aim is to boost British self-belief would promote the idea that we have a talent for grands projets such as the Olympic Park and Crossrail, rather than a propensity to deliver half what’s promised at double the cost. But there’s also an overlap between Tory MPs opposed to the northbound high-speed rail link, usually because it bisects their constituencies, and Tory MPs opposed to the government on the EU referendum. So I suspect that’s where the trouble lies. The spin is that cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is reviewing the project

How is it where you live? A tale of two nations and a message for George

Upbeat or downbeat? I asked last month whether the mood where you live is energised by enterprise or demoralised by public-sector retreat — or both. Replies poured in while the news mostly got worse. Governor Carney warned that ‘the UK cannot help but be affected by an unforgiving global environment and sustained financial market turbulence’ as shares took another dive. BP and Shell announced profit falls and job cuts. The Brexit debate took off, but the migrant benefits row overwhelmed any sensible discussion of economic pros and cons, on which voters must so far be utterly confused. Then again, it wasn’t all bad: like-for-like retail sales surged by 2.6 per

We must play the blame game over HBOS. How else will bankers learn?

‘Everyone remembers the names of Applegarth of Northern Rock and Goodwin of RBS, but history may judge the HBOS men to have been the worst of the lot,’ I wrote four years ago. Judgment has arrived at last in a Bank of England report on the 2008 HBOS collapse — plus a second report, by Andrew Green QC, on the adequacy of investigations by the now-defunct Financial Services Authority. The Bank does not go as far as I did with ‘worst of the lot’. But there’s a hint that way in deputy governor Andrew Bailey’s foreword, which calls this ‘a story of the failure of a bank that did not

The spectre haunting George Osborne

Rather more attention was paid last week to the strange position of George Osborne’s feet than to the dark shape lurking behind him. My own theory about his stance on the conference platform is that he was imagining himself as a operatic tenor, belting out an aria in praise the magic elixir he has administered to the formerly consumptive heroine, the UK economy, and pitching to be her next prince. But operas, like political careers, tend to end badly: so why the rumbling bass notes from the orchestra pit, and what is that sinister thing in the shadows? I’m not talking about Corbyn and McDonnell fighting in a sack with

All those boardroom codes still can’t catch rogues and incompetents

Sir Adrian Cadbury, who has died aged 86, is remembered as the author in 1992 of a first stab at a corporate governance code for public companies — which thereafter were expected to show ‘Cadbuarial correctness’ in the separation of chief executive and chairman and the powers of non-executive directors. Cadbury’s work was taken forward by the 1995 Greenbury report, the 1998 Hampel report, the Higgs review in 2003 and a subsequent drawing-together into a ‘Combined Code’. Finally Vince Cable, as business secretary, left his own mark by setting a target of 25 per cent women on FTSE100 boards by this year. So we now have a fat compendium of

Contagion of a different kind as Greece wriggles off the hook

The clear winner in the Greek crisis is the author of The Little Book of Negotiating Clichés, whose royalties must have been pouring in as the clock ticked towards midnight while European leaders took positive steps back from the brink and found themselves speaking the same language, perhaps because they were reading from the same page. But assuming this predictable dance results in terms that Prime Minister Tsipras can persuade his comrades to accept before the IMF’s default deadline and the moment when the Greek banking system can no longer seek life-support from the European Central Bank — which is all still quite a big assumption — who will be

The surfer, the sailor and the horseman: prosperity is all about personal stories

The tectonic plates of economic life rumble and shift. As ever, market watchers are obsessed by big themes — and the demand for predictions about them even though so many past predictions have turned out wrong. Right now, we’re gripped by the endgame for Greece, the timing of the first US rate rise, the future of energy prices given Opec’s decision to maintain output above demand, the slowing of Chinese industrial growth, and the unresolved destiny of the global debt bubble. Yet we also know that wealth creation is fundamentally a matter of individual risk and endeavour, often pursued in defiance of the adverse alignment of market forces. On that basis,

Highland star

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”James Forsyth and Isabel Hardman discuss Charles Kennedy’s career” startat=1211] Listen [/audioplayer]Charles Kennedy’s eloquence, intelligence and humour were famous in the Highlands long before his election to the Commons at the age of 23. When I started at Lochaber High School, the prizes he had won as a school debater adorned the walls; as pupils knew, at university he had gone on to win the national championship for Glasgow. It was clear that he was a phenomenon. Charles knew, perhaps better than anyone in British politics today, that how you say something is critical to being understood. Politics is the art of making and winning arguments. He was

The Spectator’s Notes | 21 May 2015

Who benefits from Prince Charles’s handshake with Gerry Adams? Not the victims of IRA violence, including the 18 soldiers who died at Warrenpoint on the same day as Lord Mountbatten was murdered. Not the moderate parties in Ireland, north or south, who never blew up anybody and so can get no kudos for pretending to be sorry about it afterwards. Only Adams (who was a senior IRA commander at the time of the killings) and Sinn Fein. His party has thus been relieved of current unpopularity in the Republic caused by long-running rape accusations, and is suddenly made to look good in the run-up to the centenary of the Easter

Remembering Raymond

I first heard of Raymond Carr, who wrote for this magazine for more than 40 years, when I was in Italy in the army at the end of the second world war, and I had a letter from my sister in London saying that she had met the most marvellous man who was not only very funny but immensely clever, and I must meet him when I got back. By the time I did, Raymond had moved from being a wartime schoolmaster at Wellington College to a being a resident fellow of All Souls, Oxford. He was, yes, both immensely funny and rather grand. Raymond Carr had been educated at

Cricket’s glorious dead

He’s a tall man, Kevin Pietersen, and he casts a long shadow. It loomed large over the Long Room at Lord’s last week where the great, the good, and the not very good at all of the cricket world had gathered for the annual Wisden dinner, one of the most enjoyable events in the life of man. For starters, indeed only a few minutes before we did get stuck into our starters, the hapless Paul Downton had been suddenly sacked as managing director of English cricket. It seems nonsense to blame Downton for all the failures of the England team, but he was the main man in the room for