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How builders plan to get round the Ulez charge

‘What a worry the Ulez must be for you both,’ said a friend with a nod to the pick-up truck parked outside our house. It was kind of him to wonder. The builder boyfriend drives an old Mitsubishi L200 to work in London every day and like almost every other working man he cannot afford to buy a new vehicle that is Ulez compliant so you would presume he has to pay the charge. But that’s not quite how it’s turning out. There is no Ulez problem for any Khan supporter who can find an old granny to put in his old car once a week If I might speak

In praise of minding your own business

Athens With energy bordering on the demonic, I strut around an ancient stadium trying to make up for the debauchery of the past two weeks in Patmos. Alexandra has flown back to Gstaad and I’m staying with my oldest friend, Aliki Goulandris, whose magnificent country house north of the capital brings back very pleasant memories. Just saying her name, which is Alice in English, makes me think of my youth and my two tiny children who both grew up in this house. It was the golden age: Davis Cup, karate championships, polo in Paris, sailing the Nefertiti and Bushido, Lolly and JT and Alexandra swimming in the pool, and parties

Switzerland is now an enemy of the rich

Gstaad The staff are back and all is well, as they used to say long ago in faraway places. The gardener and the cleaner are Portuguese, and they greet me, with their inherent dignity, from afar. The Filipina maid and cook almost gets me in a headlock trying to thank me for keeping her on salary while she rested at home. I shoo her away. Who does she take me for, a lowlife cheapskate like Philip Green? I didn’t hesitate to send them all home. Mind you, I’ve taken such a shellacking on the stock market that I’ll soon be applying for a job myself, perhaps as an ageing gigolo

Rules for a deconfinement dinner party

The most visible local landmark is a solitary two-headed Jurassic mountain called Le Bessillon, six miles long and 800 metres tall at the highest peak. These are unimpressive vital statistics for a mountain perhaps, but the Bessillon exerts a tremendous, almost uncanny presence on us all. The foreign correspondent and his wife have bought an 800-tree olive farm on a nearby hillside. From their outside dining table this great primeval slab and its forested sides can be seen in profile, like a finely drawn illustration in a Victorian encyclopedia. Between the dining table and the mountain is nothing but oak forest and pylons, and beyond it more oak forest until

What no one tells you about owning a horse

When people ask me what I did during lockdown, I would like to give an inspiring answer, apart from growing vegetables. I thought I would write The Real Life Guide to Keeping a Horse, with all the stuff other books won’t tell you. Chapter One, ‘You Will Need’, will give the most realistic list ever published of the items you should assemble before bringing home your new equine friend. Number one item: gaffer tape. I know you’re thinking the farrier comes every six weeks. But in practice most farriers are harder to get hold of than O. J. Simpson on the San Diego Freeway. Thoroughbreds reign supreme in the art

Envy is the greatest blight of all

Gstaad Hippocrates is known as the father of Western medicine and he discovered and named a disease known as ‘micropoulaki’ during the Periclean period, in around 430 BC. He did not call it a virus, but a sickness of the brain. Some years later, Aristotle described micropoulaki syndrome as a disease but one that was not contagious, ‘no more than a fool can influence an intelligent fellow to act foolish’. Micropoulaki in classical Greek translates as having a tiny willy. Women should, by definition, be immune from the disease. But they are, strange as it may seem, known to suffer from it, although not as often and as badly as

My first post-lockdown party

France is divided into a red zone and a green zone. We’re green. Green for go. From this morning we no longer need a signed and dated permit to leave the house; we can socialise with up to ten other people at a time; and we can travel up to 60 miles in any direction. In theory we could fill a minibus and go on a beano down to the coast tomorrow. And in spite of the government ordering bars and restaurants to remain closed, the village beer bar unexpectedly opened for business last Saturday, and the lights were on in the poshest village restaurant where people inside could be

Lockdown is making a Lib Dem of me

If this lockdown doesn’t end soon we are all going to turn into hairy lefties. I have just cut the builder boyfriend’s barnet, very badly. It is my second attempt, and while the first went rather well, because I approached the enterprise cautiously, this latest one has gone horribly wrong because I got a bit carried away with the clippers. My mother is a hairdresser so I assumed I might have it in the blood. I helped out a lot in her salon when I was a teenager. I can shampoo and sweep the floor just fine. But of course the rest of it requires more detailed training, I now

My toilet ultimatum to the builder boyfriend

The rain showers had a strange and wondrous effect. All the cyclists, joggers and dog walkers that were coming from miles away to take their essential exercise in the countryside magically disappeared. No one we didn’t recognise took any essential exercise in the downpours, but then resumed it when the weather changed. I find this odd because the explanation of the day-trippers for putting their bikes and their backpacks and their hiking equipment and their picnic baskets into the backs of their cars had been that they really, really needed to do that — come hell, high water or Covid. The locked-down inhabitants of towns and cities needed to pedal

I salute Professor Neil Ferguson

Gstaad Let me begin with a salute to the winner of this year’s Sir Jimmy Goldsmith prize: Professor Neil Ferguson. The prize is awarded every year to a man who casts convention aside and — lockdown or no lockdown — continues to shag his mistress and to hell with the coronavirus. The professor has apologised but Antonia Staats, the mistress, has not. Neither of them has anything to feel sorry about. When the urge comes, social distancing grows smaller, pardon the reverse pun. We all want to flatten the curve, and Ferguson did just that. He has proved by his rash action that sex conquers all, following in the tradition

In praise of French doctors

From my hospital bed in Hyères I could look out of the window and see the old town and Edith Wharton’s old house, the Castel Sainte-Claire, away on the hillside. Christophe, a male nurse, came in to welcome me and take my temperature, pulse and blood pressure. He was masked and gloved against possible infection from the old Covid Dix-Neuf and he spoke English. As he slipped on the finger thermometer and inflatable sleeve, he reminisced about his rugby-playing days. Thirty-five years ago, he said, he had competed against an English team who played rugby with a violence that was incredible. His opposite number on the English side had sharpened

The night I danced with Ginger Rogers

Gstaad When indolence becomes intolerable, remembrances of things past become a lifesaver. Charles Moore’s Spectator Notes also helps. His recent item about his friend Lady Penn reminded me of events long ago that had slipped my mind because at the time I was under the influence and without sleep. About 20 years ago, the designer Carolina Herrera rang to invite me to a dinner in New York for Prue Penn, who was staying with her and her husband. When I was introduced to Lady Penn, she laughingly told me that we had met before, ten years earlier, ‘when you tried to pick me up at ten in the morning in

I’m imposing a one-woman trade embargo on China

Without making any efforts in that direction, I now know all about a certain telecom firm’s future business plans. My neighbours are working from home, loudly, with their kitchen windows open. I want to scream: ‘I can’t turn my ears off, and I don’t have a mute function!’ Call me old-fashioned, but if they continue to corporate grandstand at the tops of their voices during laptop conference calls without specifically telling me that everything I’m hearing is off the record, then I’m treating them as primary source material. ‘Guys, that’s confidential. Our ears only,’ one of them keeps shouting through her kitchen window. Why not close the window, as a

How the French view their weekly clap for carers

Once a week we break French emergency law and have a friend round for drinks on the terrace. The terrace overlooks the village rooftops as if it were a box at the theatre. Two weeks ago we were pleasantly lit up, when, at one minute to eight, the villagers below came out on to their terraces or stood at their windows and front doors to make a noise in support of the ‘essential’ workers: nurses, doctors, carers, postmen, shopkeepers, council workers, and so on. Some banged saucepans together or beat them with wooden spoons. Some blew horns of one kind or another, including what sounded to me like one of

Writing my High Life column made a man of me

As Cole Porter might have said, only second-rate people go on and on about their inner lives. Self-analysis, according to Cole, is the twin of self-promotion. Yet in this 10,000th issue of the world’s oldest and best weekly, and in my 43rd year of writing High Life, I have to admit to a bit of both of the above. So before any of you retreat into laptops and mobiles, some nostalgia is called for, starting in the spring of 1977. Many of the writers back then sent in their longhand-written copy via messenger, paid for by The Spectator. I used to type mine and slip it under the door at

Vodka, kaolin and morphine: my welcome drinks at The Spectator offices

In 2001, aged 44, I was hired to write a weekly column for this august paper, and for the first time in my life there was a London door on which I could knock or ring, at any time of the day or evening, and be welcomed in. And what a door! To walk along the Regency terrace sun trap of Doughty Street in Bloomsbury on a summer evening, then breeze through the open door of number 56, and to know that the people to be found inside were the funniest, cleverest, most unsnobbish collection of individuals, and that booze was the second language, was a dream come true. I

We don’t have lockdown in Surrey

The man was unloading cycles from the boot of his car just as I was about to take the turning for my house. It was the last straw. In the space of a mile and a half drive from field to home, I had passed 79 cyclists. I photographed each swarm as it approached me, pulling over to use the camera on my phone, before anyone accuses me of dangerous driving. At the entrance to the cricket club, a group of three men and a woman in Lycra were standing shoulder to shoulder, bikes propped idle, having a good old chinwag. I pulled up next to them and snapped them

The joy of pumping iron at 83

Gstaad So the days — and months — drift by. This once peaceful Alpine town is packed with rich refugees fleeing the you-know-what. They come from nearby cities crammed with real migrants. There isn’t an empty apartment left, and the locals are raking it in. Two good friends have died, the village is supposed to be locked down, but God awful bikers are everywhere. Yes, they are biking down the middle of narrow paths which makes it impossible to keep your distance from them. What boggles the mind is the mentality of the morons who refuse to practise social distancing. The hotels, clubs and restaurants are shut, so surely they

Would my success in growing cannabis plants translate to nasturtiums?

In a cave once used as a stable and now abandoned, I found a wooden crate containing a dozen tiny clay flowerpots. They were of a simple design and looked old. I found two packets of seeds in a bric-à-brac drawer — sunflowers and nasturtiums — and I sowed them in the pots, which I arranged in a row on a shelf on the terrace. It was my first attempt at growing anything since 1979, when I raised six cannabis plants in my father’s greenhouse with such spectacular success that I had to permanently leave the roof panes open to accommodate them. Rarely have sunflower and nasturtium seeds commanded such

Why I joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses

The toad who lives at the bottom of the garden in the pile of bricks beneath the potting table was very happy with his new plunge pool. I made it on a particularly slow afternoon when I had run out of ideas for things to do. It was either make a toad Jacuzzi or darn socks, so naturally Mr Toad lucked out. Before that, I tidied the cellar, going through all the laundry bags full of horse tackle. I sorted and bagged rugs, cleaned and polished bridles, reorganised my ever-burgeoning collection of multicoloured lead ropes, overreach boots and numnahs, and even sorted out all the saddle soaps and boot polishes.