Why I’m bombarded with ads for funeral insurance and knitted animals

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

This year began badly with the death of Alexander Chancellor, former editor of this magazine. He was the most fun of anyone I ever knew. Everyone at his funeral tried to describe his laugh and some even tried to imitate it, but with little success. It was as unique as the boom of the bittern. Explosive, volcanic, often involving quite a lot of spitting, it was also infectious: it was impossible to be glum in his company. Alexander liked to appear a dilettante, but as well as being a brilliant writer and editor, he was an excellent cook and a seriously good pianist. (He even briefly thought of making music his career.) He was also, of course, one of the last of the great lunchers. In fact, I’m sure that was the secret of his success as an editor: we hacks fell over ourselves to write for him, not for the fee, which was often paltry, but for the lunch. I treasure the story that when some American management types came to visit The Spectator and commented on the extraordinary amount of time everyone seemed to spend at lunch, Alexander’s reply was: ‘But how else could you fill the day?’ No wonder he didn’t hit it off with Tina Brown when she hired him to write Talk of the Town for the New Yorker. According to her recent Vanity Fair Diaries, she had decided that it was a mistake to sit next to anyone for more than 25 minutes at lunch because ‘No one has more than that to give, in my view.’ Ha! Alexander seemed to have all the time in the world to give — and how we miss him now.

We’re constantly reading alarmist stories about how Facebook, Google and the rest harvest personal information about us and sell it on to advertisers. In theory they know every detail of our lives and will target their ads to us accordingly. So I find it deeply unflattering that the sole fact they seem to have gleaned about me is that I am old. They send me endless ads for walk-in baths, retirement plans, and — most pathetic of all — funeral insurance, with nothing tempting at all.

I remember the first time I encountered targeted ads was on Amazon, where they suggested new books I might enjoy on the basis of what I had bought in the past. I found it a bit intrusive but not offensive and even occasionally bought a book they recommended. And then a friend of mine, Sally Muir, published a book called Pet Heaven about how to knit toys and hats and coats for your pets. ‘Poor deluded woman!’ I thought. I naturally assumed she would sell only a dozen copies, so to cheer her up I ordered one on Amazon. (In fact she sold zillions and was flown to New York to appear on the Martha Stewart programme.) But the terrible effect of my ill-judged generosity was that Amazon’s magic algorithms switched me from someone who liked literary novels and biographies to someone who liked books about knitting and pets. It turns out there are thousands of books about knitting and pets. So, in terms of targeted ads, I am an old woman who sits at home knitting hats for my pets while planning my own funeral. I wish there were some complaints procedure.

I asked a Tory friend in the country if she had any strong views about the Prime Minister that she would like me to express on her behalf. Yes, she said, her skirts are a disgrace. Why does she always have to show her knees? I relayed this to a friend in London, saying I sometimes wondered whether women should ever have been given the vote, but she eyed me sternly and said: ‘I couldn’t agree more. Nobody wants to see Theresa May’s knees.’ Honestly! It’s not as if she wears ra-ra skirts or pussy-pelmets. But I notice that she wore a knee-length coat and skirt for the Remembrance Day service.

Dougie my window cleaner has been coming to me for at least 20 years but I’m normally working in my study so we don’t chat very much. This time, however, he caught me downstairs and told me there’d been a spate of moped muggings up the hill in Highgate. ‘If you put me in charge,’ he said, ‘I could cure all the crime in this country.’ Oh really, Dougie, how? ‘I’d get a big barren island off Scotland somewhere and drop all the criminals on to it from a helicopter at 100 feet.’ Wouldn’t they get injured? ‘Yes — the ones that survived could eat the others. And then I’d have tour boats cruising round the island and every passenger would be given a rifle and whoever shot the most criminals would win a prize.’ Crikey! And this is a man who’s been wandering freely round my house for years. To distract him, I pointed out a large spider’s web on the outside of the window and asked if he could somehow move the spider before cleaning it. Oh yes, he said warmly, he’d never hurt an insect.

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