I have, for utterly explicable reasons, not been asked to guest-edit Radio 4’s Today this Christmas. Had I, though, I would have revived an idea first suggested, I think, by Tony Benn. Everyone loves the Shipping Forecast. But the weather forecast? That’s a different kettle of Michael Fish. The weather is rarely read, it’s emoted. ‘I’m sorry to say it’s been a rainy old day!’ Or, ‘Brrrr, bit of a frost, do wrap up!’ So why not replace emotion with detachment? First we carve up the country into meteorologically logical areas — since it’s Radio 4, let’s use Roman names — and then apply maritime thinking inland. ‘And here is the weather forecast issued by the Met Office at 0600. Pinnata Castra: moderate westerly winds; cloudy; 12 falling to eight. Cataractonium: easterly breezes; overcast; eight falling to six. Londinium: still; bright sunshine with patchy clouds; 18 falling to nine.’ Of course, it helps to imagine Charlotte Green’s voice.
Foyles bookshop used to shelve titles not by author or subject, but by publisher. As if anyone ever woke up thinking: ‘Perhaps today I’ll buy a Picador book.’ That said, over the past year I have undertaken a Foyles-esque experiment: I am reading from the ‘Classics’ list published by the New York Review of Books. I choose a handful of titles from Three Lives & Company, in Greenwich Village, using only the NYRB colophon as my guide. I have been introduced to some dazzling writing: The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy; Speedboat by Renata Adler; Like Death by Guy de Maupassant; The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant… I have allowed myself one or two off-piste titles, including John le Carré’s excellent latest ‘last’ George Smiley novel. I’m not a complete monster.
Since it’s That Time Of Year, I have a quick parlour game suggestion: ‘Copy & Paste’. At any time during a meal, or long weekend, when someone does or says something of note, another can point to them and say ‘Copy’. Then, whenever anyone points to that person and says ‘Paste’, they have to repeat their performance, or pay a forfeit. If the holiday becomes especially Brexit-y, you can prohibit the repetition of an offending act by introducing the function ‘Cut’.
Sto imparando italiano. Ma, per me, è molto difficile. Everyone says Italian is easy for English-speakers to learn and, were I not struggling so comprehensively, I might agree. The alphabet is the same (give or take a J, K, W, X or Y), the sentence structure is similar, and you can have a confident stab at phrases like molto difficile. One main difference is that Italian nouns have gender — which becomes particularly interesting when the language incorporates foreign terms. For example, la password is feminine because la parola (word) is feminine. Whereas il computer is male because il calcolatore (calculator) is male. It struck me that this is a curious incidence of ‘skeuomorphism’ — a school of design where high-tech products incorporate traditional styling. A notable example is the iPhone’s original compass app which, with brass dial and wood finish, was made to resemble 19th-century nautical equipment. Skeuomorphism exploits our sense of familiarity, ushering in the new with a reassuring nod to the past. Sadly, this linguistic insight is utterly useless when you need directions to l’aeroporto.
Peter Cook once responded to the boast ‘I’m writing a novel’ with the killer put-down: ‘Neither am I.’ However, I really am. And it’s partly The Spectator’s fault. In May 2016, the US Secret Service investigated Donald Trump’s butler for suggesting President Obama be assassinated. This bizarre event raised the obvious question: What would Jeeves do? My answer was to write a short story for this magazine that imagined an encounter between Trump and Bertie Wooster. I was amazed by the generous response it received, even from devoted P.G. Wodehouse fans for whom ‘The Master’ is, quite rightly, sacrosanct. From that seed grew the idea of writing a new Jeeves and Wooster novel. I didn’t want to break Plum’s gossamer spell with a ‘modern reboot’, but I was keen to give the book a soupçon of edge. And then the inter-war period suggested a solution: Bertie Wooster becomes a British spy. To my inexpressible delight, the Wodehouse Estate agreed, and has graciously given permission for an official homage. So now I am hard at work on Jeeves and the King of Clubs — and I can report that it is an unalloyed delight to stroll through 3a Berkeley Mansions, Brinkley Court and the Drones Club. All of your chums are here, from Madeline Bassett to Bingo Little, not to mention Anatole, Spode, and the occasional exasperated aunt. The book is out this time next year. Until then, I have ink to sling. Toodle-pip!
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