Peter Robins

All things to all men | 25 February 2016

The ocean that Christopher Oldstone-Moore has set out to chart is as broad as it is shallow: what it has meant to be bearded or shaven in the western world, from before Alexander the Great until the present day. Practicalities — shaving technology and the like — are mentioned from time to time, but only

New word order | 3 December 2015

In the basement of a busy café in Hockley, Nottingham, which may not have known exactly what it was letting itself in for, a young woman is loudly dissecting an unsatisfactory lunch: ‘Deep in my heart I know I love chips.’ In another basement a few hundred yards away, lit by a single floor lamp,

Sharpen your pencil

‘I had had a fantasy for years about owning a dairy farm,’ says Mary Norris, as she considers her career options in the first section of this odd but charming cross between a memoir and a usage guide. ‘I liked cows: they led a placid yet productive life.’ Instead, she found a productive life —

The pleasures and perils of podcast listening

No phrase is better calculated to tense the neck muscles of a regular podcast listener than ‘We have something special for you now.’ Having your radio shows downloaded to your phone, music player or computer, rather than plucked out of the air the old-fashioned way, immediately grants the listener a great deal of extra freedom:

The most expensive typing error ever?

In Paul Gallico’s 1939 novel The Adventures of Hiram Holliday, the hero’s journey is set in motion by a comma. Hiram is a copy-reader on a New York morning paper, and the comma — ‘eventually known as the $500,000 comma’ — is one he inserts into a contentious article that saves his employer in a

A middle-class show-off’s guide to craft beer

Looking back, it seems astonish-ing that the metropolitan middle classes took so long to embrace beer snobbery. The craft beer habit combines the characteristics of three long-established sources of small-scale social distinction: the farmer’s market, the tasting, and the sweet little café one knows. Take the farmer’s-market side first. Even in the age of climate

Calorie-counting six sweets at a time

Anyone who is trying vaguely to control their weight and still eats tasty, nasty processed foods — me, for instance — gets used to playing the game of ‘guess how many calories there are in the packet’. Today I bought the bag of sweets pictured above, and discovered a new difficulty level. The rules of

How to tell who’s really reading Thomas Piketty

No one owns a Kindle for very long without becoming obsessed by its social highlighting feature: unless you go into the preferences to turn it off, the glibbest and most epigrammatic sentences in any popular book begin to appear with dotted lines underneath them and the words ’19 [or however many] people highlighted this’. Our

Clement Attlee’s conversion

In the early 1960s, The Spectator ran a series called ‘John Bull’s first job’ – reminiscences by various prominenti about how they started out. One of the most startling, published in the 13 December 1963 issue, was by the former Labour prime minister Clement Attlee, respectfully bylined ‘Lord Attlee’, on his time as a young

The pleasures of voting

The rhetoric with which we are exhorted to vote is grand and sententious: do your civic duty; people died so that you could etc. etc. The rhetoric with which we’re exhorted not to vote is grander and more pretentious still. All of it makes voting sound like something between a chore and a possibly pointless

Notes on … Christmas markets

Question: what do you call several dozen pop-up shops, all freshly popped up together at the one time of year when they might actually be useful? Answer: a Christmas market. Once upon a time Christmas markets, like many English Christmas traditions, were something we borrowed from Germany but did a little less well. And if

BFI has got carried away with its live broadcasts

Live broadcasts into cinemas have become something of a commonplace, and a welcome one: operas, theatre performances, even radio programmes. But a live broadcast into cinemas of the audience entering another cinema is a new one on me. The idea is part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival, not as an avant-garde experiment but

Man Booker prize shortlist 2013 – how was our tipping?

One of Philip Hensher’s many qualities as a critic is that he doesn’t take prisoners. So his entertaining and judicious guide to the Man Booker longlist ended like this: ‘The shortlist should comprise McCann, Tóibín, Mendelson, Crace, House and Catton. House’s novel is the one you ought to read, and Mendelson’s the one that everyone

On borrowing Elmore Leonard

When you walk into a new branch library, or stumble across an unfamiliar secondhand bookshop, which writer do you look for? They can’t be too obscure; the idea is to find something. They must be prolific; you’re looking for something that’s new to you. And they must be reliable: you want to be sure that

Early edition

If you were to ask the editor of one of our quality newspapers whether he had thought about how to adapt to the internet, he would look at you as if you had been locked in a basement for 20 years, and then tell you that he thinks of little else. And it would be