A president in the family

Also in this Christmas notebook: a hairdresser called ‘they’, and what I found out on my speed-awareness course

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

This time last year I was running around excitedly telling all my friends that I had an African president in the family, something none of them could boast. My younger daughter Theo is married to Sasha Scott, son of Dr Guy Scott, who was president of Zambia from October 2014 to January 2015, and the only white African president since apartheid. When I first met him five years ago he was an opposition MP, but then in 2011 his party won the elections and the new president, Michael Sata, appointed him vice-president. Dr Scott’s job as veep seemed to involve constant travelling. President Sata was reluctant to leave the country, so he had to stand in for him at state funerals, of which there seemed to be an extraordinary number.

This led to a peculiar situation when Theo and Sasha finally decided to get married — they fixed a date when Dr Scott was pretty sure he could come, but the big fear right up to the day was that President Mugabe would die and Dr Scott would have to attend the funeral in Zimbabwe. So I found myself in the unusual position of praying for President Mugabe’s good health, at least until Theo was safely married. The wedding was much enhanced by the presence of the veep’s security squad with their bulging holsters — all the children preferred them to the entertainer with balloons.

And then on 28 October 2014 President Sata died. He was in hospital in London and had been ailing for some time, so it was not a surprise. I rang Sasha to say shall we crack open the champagne? But he said sternly that this was no time for celebration as the country had lost a great leader and his father had lost a great friend. Still, he was quite pleased that his father, as acting president, now had a presidential helicopter and two motorcades. Unfortunately, he was not eligible to stand as president because his parents were not born in Zambia: his job was to oversee the elections and produce a new president, which duly happened in January when Edgar Lungu was elected. So I had a president in the family for only 90 days, but it was good while it lasted.

My hairdresser has an assistant called Charlie, whom I like. So far so good. But it is very hard to say anything else about Charlie because Charlie insists on being referred to as ‘they’. He/she is gender-ambiguous or unassigned or query-ing, or something. I’m all for people calling themselves what they want, but using the plural pronoun ‘they’ for one person makes nonsense of the entire language.

Recently I stayed at a very grand hotel in Morocco whose restaurant had a tray of reading glasses for people like me who found the menu print too small. What a brilliant idea! Of course the real answer would be to make the print much larger but that would be to admit what is actually true — that most of the hotel guests are old. In my experience this is true of most luxury hotels, and where reading glasses are really needed is in the bathroom. I have spent years stepping into hotel showers, finding three little bottles on the shelf, peering at them to work out which is the shampoo and then going back, dripping, into the bedroom to fetch my reading glasses.

Last month I went on one of these speed-awareness courses — which have now been exposed as a money-making racket by the police. I was doing only 36mph on an empty 30mph road but it was in Oxford, and Oxfordshire police are notoriously keen on traffic offences. Nobody stopped me at the time, but a letter arrived a few days later. I could either pay the £100 fine and take three points on my licence, or I could pay £95 for the speed-awareness course and not get the points, which I thought meant my insurance premium would not go up. Wrong. Apparently insurers now ask whether you’ve been on a speed-awareness course, so they can penalise you anyway, and the course, once you include travel and time wasted — four hours in a classroom — costs more than the penalty.

Having said that, I’m quite glad I went. I’d forgotten what school was like and it was funny to see how quickly my 40 classmates sorted themselves into the bad boys who sat at the back and made jokes, and the goody-goods who sat at the front and put their hands up. I was surprised at how many Asian women were there — I never thought Asian women were that keen on speeding. I was one of only about ten white faces and the oldest person by a long chalk. We spent a lot of time being shown photographs of streets, or country roads, and asked to point out potential hazards. Most of my classmates suggested things like parked cars or blind corners, but I kept saying a dog might run out. This is because the one time I nearly had an accident (that’s the one time in almost 50 years of driving) was when I had to swerve to avoid a dog. But then other people started saying ‘or a cat, or a horse, or a cow’, so I shut up.

What did I learn? Well, obviously I learned not to break the speed limit. More surprisingly, I also learned that, in certain circumstances, I can drive much faster than I ever imagined. On country roads, if they have no explicit speed limit signs, you can do 70mph. Fancy that. And perhaps for that reason, most fatal accidents happen on country roads.

Incidentally, the Uber driver who delivered me and the one who collected me both recognised the Islington address. They’d both been on speed-awareness courses. And I noticed that they both drove at a steady 30mph — though, actually, the speed limit throughout Islington is now 20mph. Parp. Parp.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Lynn Barber began her career writing for Penthouse. She’s been named interviewer of the year at the British Press Awards six times.

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Show comments
  • davidshort10

    I always thought the national speed limit on country roads was 60mph. Well, there you go, but I wouldn’t travel at 70mph on any road that was not a dual carriageway.

    • Kirky11

      You’re right, the national speed limit on a single carriageway is 60mph. Highway Code p64. However, as the name suggests, this is the limit and not the recommended safe speed.

      • Mr B J Mann

        When you take your test try doing it at 5mph, or even 20mph, when the conditions enable you to drive at the limit.

        Then when you appeal your fail see how far the endlessly, mindlessly regurgitated mantra of “It’s a limit not a target!” get you.

        When I took my test holding up traffic, not making good progress when conditions allowed, and even failing to proceed to and maintain the limit when safe to do so we’re all reasons for failure.

        And even in this day and age when most policy changes and even road “improvements” seem to be designed to gridlock town and country I doubt that has changed.

  • Albro

    So, the main fact that you learned was wrong. Pay the fine and take the points, life is too short.

  • mumble

    There is a great American legal maxim: “The process is the punishment.”

  • mikewaller

    Regarding “they”, it has long seemed to me that the need for a gender neural third person singular pronoun could easy be derived from the relevant noun: person. If we added “pe” to “he” and “she” and “per” to “her” and “him”, the problem would be solved. Of course, there are those of immature mind who would make much of “pee” being a colloquial term for urine or urinating. However when “p ” was adopted in the context of decimalization to avoid confusion with the old penny, that kind of nonsense soon died away, exactly as it would do with the new pronouns, if adopted.

  • Chas Grant

    I’m all for people calling themselves what they want, but using the plural pronoun ‘they’ for one person makes nonsense of the entire language.

    Oh dear me, no. What a shocking display of ignorance. According to Oxford Dictionaries:

    The word they (with its counterparts them, their, and themselves) as a singular pronoun to refer to a person of unspecified gender has been used since at least the 16th century.

  • Andy Geoghegan

    Insurers have no right to ask and you have no obligation to tell if you’ve been on a course. I think Aviva are the culprits who ask.