Navalny’s final agony at the Polar Wolf gulag

One winter’s night before the Ukraine war, I was on a train that stopped at a remote station deep in the Russian arctic. It was late November. The mercury stood at 15 degrees below zero – the hard, dry frost of the far north. The train stood silent, wreathed in the coal smoke of the stoves that heated every carriage. The village’s name was Kharp. Though I did not know it at the time, Kharp is home to the FKU IK-3 penal colony, a Soviet-era arctic facility known as Polar Wolf where Alexei Navalny has just died. It was here that the Putin regime, with its rigid deafness to irony,

The pure joy of grandchildren

‘My grandchildren are my world,’ writes a woman on social media, summing up a certain type of grandparent. There are, however, two ways of looking at it and I see many whose worlds revolve around their grandchildren because they have no choice. I used to chat with them at the school gate. If their families were not strictly ‘the rural poor’, they were certainly of the group Theresa May described as ‘just about managing’: both parents had to work and grandparents took up the slack, unless they were still of working age, in which case arrangements were more haphazard. I see many whose worlds revolve around their grandchildren because they

The new status symbol of the super rich: headlice

To help out friends, I sometimes collect a boy from his primary school near Sloane Square. This part of London boasts the most expensive homes in Britain and the local families are served by a crop of ultra-pricey schools. The best known, Hill House, was founded in the 1940s by an eccentric army officer, ‘the Colonel’, who replaced the traditional blazers, caps and ties with a uniform of soft shoes, breeches and cravats inspired by George Mallory’s climbing kit. The Colonel’s wife chose the colours – red, brown and saffron – and the pupils became a local landmark as they marched along the King’s Road to play games at the

The heady, hedonistic summer in which I became a life-long foreigner

Rome I have spent almost all my adult life as a foreigner. When I graduated from Oxford I faced a stark choice: work for a living or leave the country. As I did not wish ever to have to get up in the morning, toil in an office or travel on public transport, the path was clear. I moved to Budapest with the intention of opening a bar. I feature in three novels as, respectively, a poseur, a snob and a persistent but inept seducer It was the summer of 1993, and the newly free nations of central Europe had become an irresistible magnet for self-styled bohemians from across the

Grumpiness is a way of life

I used to be a terrible grump who would rant and rage against the 1,001 irritations of modern British life. And then one day I decided life was too short to be permanently enraged by everything and everyone.  ‘These kind people simply want to share their music with me! How thoughtful!’ For grumpy me, the sound of other people’s music in public spaces was agony. I’d seethe at the outrageous selfishness of such people. My quiet walks through the park would be shattered by the BOOM-BOOM-BOOM blast of music from a passing cyclist. And I’d shout: ‘Thanks for sharing your terrible taste in music!’   The new, cool me reacted differently.