Victoria Lane

Why Madeira is like Swiss cheese

Three days on Madeira can feel like a week – not because time ­­drags, but because the place is so varied with its many different weathers. From the aeroplane you could be circling over the Caribbean, an impression given by the lush scrambling vegetation and orange rooftops jostling up the mountains. We landed at Cristiano


Savannah GA is supposed to have lots of ghosts, but I’d forgotten that. It was an April morning and sunlight filtered through the Spanish moss. As I arrived at Wright Square, someone fell into step with me and we crossed the road together. At the other side I glanced to see who it was. No one.

Baby love

I like Radio 4 — you can have it on in the background burbling away for hours and hours without taking in a word, and then there comes a moment when you’re making a cup of coffee and find yourself plunged into the story of how, during the first half of the 20th century, premature


The last time I stayed in Courchevel it was in a tatty roadside chalet a long way down the mountain. One detail sticks: pickled cockles piled high on a platter at the closing banquet, à la Fanny Cradock. That was more than a decade ago. This time, we were staying at 1,850 metres, which is another

Notes on …The Tarn Valley

Why didn’t I know about the Tarn Valley? I’d often been right next door. But here, north-east of Toulouse, between the baking fields of Gers and the rocky mountains around Carcassonne, is this best-kept secret. It’s a lush region of great rivers, rolling green hills and towns with magnificent red-brick gothic architecture and is sometimes

‘Morocco is a diabetic’s nightmare’

Fleeing streets of slush, we touch down in a north African spring, where we are driven through the desert scrub outside Marrakech, passing dusty ochre expanses filled with old plastic containers and half-built hotels and the odd donkey before turning down a track which runs alongside a walled garden. Tantalising green fronds poke above the

Aeolian joys

It’s 5 a.m., a splashy grey dawn, and we’re out of here on easyJet. Palermo is another world of heat and brightness but we’re not stopping; at the port we board a catamaran which churns its way towards the Aeolian islands, the volcanic archipelago off the north-east corner of Sicily. The islands are named after

Incredible string band

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are performing at the Albert Hall: playing their tiny instruments in a very big space. There must be 5,000 people here, but the orchestra’s friendly jokes, the modesty of the ukulele sound and the familiarity of the audience make the concert seem intimate. The Ukes have been going for

Brown study

Stage hypnotists need the trust of their audience, but also a whiff of danger. So Derren Brown calls his show Svengali, though he is not really an evil puppetmaster but a gentle, coaxing, mostly ethical puppetmaster. That show, which opened for its first run at the end of 2010, is back for a short time

A life in letters

Diana Athill, now nearly 94, lives in what must be the nicest retirement home in London, a large red brick house at the top of Highgate village, run by a charitable trust and populated by former writers and doctors and psychiatrists. On this unseasonably warm day she has on a flowing Kenyan kaftan — the

Dare to be dull

After rootling in the BBC archives on the internet recently I started thinking, wouldn’t it be good if more programmes from the past were shown in full? The online archive contains less than a tenth of the total footage stored by the BBC (which would amount to nearly 70 years of TV if you watched

Give Charlie a break

The boy’s gone to jail. Isn’t that enough? I was watching the news on the evening of 10 December, some follow-up reports about the student protest the day before, and saw a clip of a young man wielding a mannequin’s leg — shod in a lady’s wedge-heeled boot — as he declared that he and

In the beginning was the crossword

On Thursday evening, a stream of distinguished visitors poured through the doors of 22 Old Queen Street. These were the readers who had applied and been picked to attend a party to celebrate the publication of the 2,000th Spectator crossword. Tom Johnson, aka Doc, crossword editor, presided over a roomful of dons, doctors, vicars and

For his next trick …

‘I think he is probably the devil,’ said the work experience boy when I was going to meet Derren Brown, the magician, mindreader, ‘psychological illusionist’, what-have-you. ‘Because he does exactly what I’d do if I was the devil, which is pretend he can’t really do magic and that it’s all just a trick.’ Brown turns

An 80-year-old mystery

‘The older I get, the more inclined I am to say those three words: I don’t know,’ says Baroness Rendell of Babergh. She turns 80 this week, and seems milder in person than in her writing. In photographs, too, she looks a bit haughty and forbidding, with incredible Ming the Merciless eyebrows. But the door