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21 January

In the headlines

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov will hold talks in Geneva today, amid growing fears that Russia will invade Ukraine. President Biden has threatened Russia with severe economic sanctions if it does invade, but former Kremlin adviser Sergei Karaganov told the Today programme that Moscow has “countermeasures which could devastate his country and the countries of his allies”. Tory rebels say they may release a secretly recorded conversation to back up their claims that party whips tried to blackmail them. At least five MPs have been threatened with funding cuts for their constituencies or the printing of damaging stories about them, says the Guardian. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has pledged to stop the “endless torrent” of unnecessary announcements on trains. He calls it a “bonfire of the banalities”.

Comment

Theatre

Broadway gets the blues

Rehearsing for a Broadway show has become an absolute nightmare, says Michael Riedel in Air Mail. Before they even start, the actors and writers have to sit through endless training sessions on Covid protocol, sexual harassment, “equity-diversity-and-inclusion training”, and so on. Then theatres insist on hiring intimacy trainers to offer guidance on love scenes. “You can’t have an onstage kiss without an intimacy coach monitoring every quiver of a lip.” At one particularly woke theatre, the team is trying to banish meetings because they “represent patriarchy”.

UK politics

Can he do another Lazarus?

Boris Johnson has always been a “rule-flouting, outrage-inducing politician”, says Fraser Nelson in The Daily Telegraph. That’s how he was able to get Brexit done and romp home in the 2019 general election with the biggest Tory majority in a generation. England’s Covid restrictions are now being dropped because he correctly overruled the gloomsters at Sage and resisted a winter lockdown. So how shocked should we really be about the “shenanigans” at No 10? Sure, the “hypocrisy” of sending the police after rule breakers while your staff make regular booze runs to the off-licence is not easy to defend. But on the important stuff – vaccines, and keeping lockdowns as short as possible – Boris has had a good pandemic.

Noted

Under the Netherlands’ ultra-strict Covid rules, hair salons have been allowed to reopen but cultural venues remain closed. To highlight the “unequal treatment of the cultural sector”, says Vice, Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited 50 people to have a haircut on its stage. As they were getting their trim – or waiting for it in the auditorium seats – they were treated to a performance.

Nature

A group of polar bears has taken over a Russian island, says My Modern Met. Kolyuchin Island, in the Arctic Ocean, used to be home to a Soviet weather station but was abandoned by humans more than 25 years ago. Once they left, the bears set up camp themselves. They’ve turned the old buildings into “cosy homes” and are, “from the looks of it, thriving”.

Zeitgeist

Private members clubs for dogs have become a hit with gardenless Manhattanites who want a space for their pets to unwind, says Jane Mulkerrins in The Times. Soho Grand Dog Park – a 3,000 sq ft space with canine-friendly sculptures, vintage fire hydrant water stations and a splash pool – is so popular that there’s a waiting list to join, despite the $795 annual membership. But that’s nothing compared to School for the Dogs in the East Village, a trainer-supervised park for dogs who get “overwhelmed” in public parks. It’s $2,200 for five visits a year.

Staying young

The quest for eternal life has moved up a gear, says MIT Tech Review. Altos Labs, a biotech startup that is trying to reverse the process of cellular ageing, has revealed it has an astonishing $3bn in funding. The Jeff Bezos-backed company has recruited one of the world’s most respected scientists, GlaxoSmithKline’s Hal Barron, to be CEO, along with a roster of top university professors on sports-star salaries. Its focus is on “biological reprogramming”, a technique in which older cells are turned back into immature stem cells.

Love etc

Northern Nigeria, a conservative region where sharia law is enforced for the Muslim majority, has a thriving trade in love potions. One entrepreneur and sex therapist known as Jaruma has more than a million Instagram followers, says The Economist. Her posts sometimes shame politicians who she claims bought her goods but did not pay up. Tonics she offers include “Love me like crazy” and “Divorce is not my portion”. The latter costs $1,200, nearly 17 times Nigeria’s monthly minimum wage.

Snapshot

It’s a neon artwork by Tracey Emin that hangs in Downing Street. The artist donated the piece when David Cameron was PM in 2011, but now wants it removed. “I don’t want the work back, because I donated it,” she told Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. “I would simply like, at the moment, for it to be taken down, because neon is notoriously for a party atmosphere.” And in that regard, Emin added, “I really do not feel that No 10 needs any encouragement”.

Quoted

Quoted 21.01

“A wasted youth is better by far than a wise and productive old age.”

Singer Meat Loaf, who died last night


20 January

In the headlines

“In the name of God, grow up!” says the Mail, after yesterday’s effort by rebel Tory MPs to topple the Prime Minister appeared to crumble. With “Putin poised to start a war” and inflation soaring, this is no time for political infighting by a “handful of immature, political pipsqueaks”. It was the surprise defection of Tory MP Christian Wakeford to Labour that solidified support for the PM, says Politico, quoting a backbencher: “It’s one thing to demand Boris does a better job and another to be helping the opposition.” England’s Covid restrictions will be dropped next week, as the omicron wave seems to have passed its peak. That means no more mask mandates, vaccine passports or WFH. Hong Kongers trying to escape the increasingly isolated city are chartering private jets for their cats, dogs and rabbits, says the FT. With cargo restrictions on commercial jets, people are clubbing together to fly private at around £19,000 per pet.

Comment

UK politics

Why Downing Street broke the rules

One element of “Partygate” that keeps coming up is the sheer stupidity of it, says Sebastian Payne in the Financial Times. How, people wonder, could the “notionally bright folks” running the country have possibly thought that their “series of illicit jamborees” were in any way acceptable? Well, I have a theory: it was “lockdown detachment”. While the rest of us were stuck at home, office life in government “rolled on” as usual. This wasn’t because officials thought the rules didn’t apply to them – it was because the business of government simply couldn’t be conducted remotely, in many cases for security reasons. So in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, “desks were occupied throughout the three lockdowns”. It was, at work at least, life as normal.

Sport

Banning Djokovic was pure paranoia

Kicking Novak Djokovic out to “keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe”, as Aussie PM Scott Morrison absurdly put it, was absolute “rot”, says Chris Kenny in The Australian. Djoko’s views on vaccines were well known long before his visa was granted. The emergency ministerial powers used to cancel it (and overrule the federal court’s decision to back his appeal and let him stay) are there for “genuine threats to the nation”. Deporting a bloke for his views on public health is an “outrageously undemocratic and illiberal action”. The fact that Djokovic is healthy, tested negative, and has some natural immunity from having had the virus just “compounds the inanity of what has transpired”.

Inside politics

“Be careful what you wish for,” the blog Guido Fawkes warns Tory MPs. “Turfing out a Prime Minister over twentysomethings in Downing Street guzzling cheese and wine is not really on a level with Suez” – and the frontrunners to succeed Boris don’t even want the job right now. Guido Fawkes has also dug up old WhatsApp messages from defecting Tory MP Christian Wakeford in which he refers to Labour as a “bunch of c**ts”, and says Starmer can’t be trusted with Brexit. Wakeford also co-sponsored a bill aimed at forcing MPs who change party affiliations to call by-elections when they do so. Oddly, he seems to have changed his mind.

On the money

Supermodel Heidi Klum’s legs were once insured for more than $2m. “One was actually more expensive than the other,” the 48-year-old former Victoria’s Secret Angel told The Ellen Show, “because when I was young, I fell into a glass and I have, like, a big scar.” Her left leg, which has the scar, was insured for $1m; the right for $1.2m.

Nature

A group of 1,000 fin whales has been spotted near the Antarctic Peninsula – one of the largest such sightings ever made. “Good news doesn’t get any more in-your-face than this,” says Philip Hoare in The Guardian. The giant mammals were driven to the brink of extinction by whalers in the 20th century, when two million were slaughtered in this very patch of ocean. After years spent hiding from hunters, they may be becoming less fearful – and finally returning to their old foraging grounds. “It’s like humans never happened.”

On the way out

Fun-filled marriages, at least in southern Russia, where officials have banned laughter at ceremonies in register offices, says The Moscow Times. Also now forbidden: eating, drinking spirits, smoking, and “moving pieces of furniture and floral arrangements”. The bride and groom have to get through their vows sharpish, too – proceedings can’t drag on for longer than 40 minutes.

Noted

A city in California is using green lasers to scare off an invasion of crows. Every evening, more than 1,000 of the birds descend on downtown Sunnyvale, feasting on scraps, pooing on pavements and dropping twigs on outdoor diners. For three weeks, town officials will spend an hour each night flashing lasers at them and blasting out the sound of crows in distress.

Snapshot

It’s the very basic interior of a 1936 commercial plane. Airline seats used to be made of wicker, to save on weight and to fit into long, narrow aircraft. Aluminium and foam were gradually introduced in the 1930s; the first fully reclinable seat was launched by British Airways for its First Class passengers in the 1990s.

Quoted

quote 20.1

“The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”

Dolly Parton


19 January

In the headlines

A “pork pie plot” is afoot in Westminster. Up to 20 Red Wall Tories – including the MP for Melton Mowbray, home of the pork pie – are planning to submit letters of no confidence in Boris Johnson. The “magic number” of 54 letters, which would trigger a confidence vote in the PM, could come as soon as today, says the Telegraph. Bury South MP Christian Wakeford has defected to Labour – the first Tory MP to do so for 15 years. Britain’s “cost of living crisis” has deepened, says the FT, with inflation hitting 5.4% in December, its highest rate in 30 years. Matt Hancock has been ticked off by the Serpentine Swimming Club after taking an icy – and topless – plunge in the Hyde Park lake without first becoming a member. Who does he think he is, said one member. Vladimir Putin?

Comment

UK politics

The PM who slept with his son’s wife

The Conservatives have gathered to discuss the Prime Minister’s future. Nobody doubts that he’s a character and a winner, but they worry there have been too many lies and scandals. It sounds like today, says Dominic Sandbrook in UnHerd, but actually this was 19 October 1922, when Tory MPs met at the Carlton Club to debate the future of their coalition with Liberal PM David Lloyd George. The parallels with Boris Johnson are almost too easy: a man with “wandering hands and slippery principles”; a proven election-winner “whose own friends couldn’t trust a word he said”. Had he been prime minister during Covid, Lloyd George wouldn’t just have invited you to a party – “he’d have sold you a peerage and made a move on your wife while you were still hanging up your coat”.

Culture

The extremists who’ve given up on America

“Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uighurs,” crypto billionaire and former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya said last week. “I’m telling you a very hard, ugly truth. Of all the things that I care about, yes, it is below my line.” It’s a “chilling statement”, says Abigail Shrier in The Truth Fairy newsletter, casually thrown off “by one of America’s richest titans”. But it’s typical of a newly prominent voice in political discourse: “the American Cynic”. Last week a Republican congressman from Ohio likened vaccine passports to Nazi efforts to degrade Jews before murdering them. On Friday, a Democratic candidate for Florida governor compared the Republican incumbent to Hitler.

Life

“Bono has still not found what he was looking for,” says The Times. The 61-year-old U2 frontman told the Awards Chatter podcast that he hates the band’s name, his own voice, and most of his own songs – and claimed that he only learnt how to sing “recently”. The one song he is able to enjoy is Miss Sarajevo, featuring Pavarotti, but “most of the other ones make me cringe”. “I’ve been in the car when one of our songs has come on the radio and I’ve been the colour of, as we say in Dublin, scarlet. I’m just so embarrassed.”

Tomorrow’s world

A flying car the size of a folded-up ping pong table and capable of speeds of up to 160mph has completed its first untethered flight. The ZERO aircraft, made by US company ZEVA, is entirely electric, meaning it produces no emissions. It’s “not for the faint-hearted”, says The Times. Once airborne, the ZERO turns on its side and flies horizontally, like a frisbee, with the sole passenger “in a prone position” facing the ground. The firm is planning to start taking $5,000 deposits in the spring, and the total price is expected to be $250,000.

Snapshot

It’s a “black diamond” thought to have formed when a meteorite or asteroid hit Earth 2.6 to 3.8 billion years ago. Sotheby’s is preparing to sell the 555.55-carat gem, called “The Enigma”, at auction in London next month. It’s expected to fetch £5m.

 

Eating in

A spike in the price of pork in Thailand has caused demand for crocodile meat to soar. Around 20,000 of the reptiles are now killed for their flesh in the country each month, a figure that has doubled in recent months, says Vice. Crocodile farmers say the meat is low in fat, high in protein and tastes like chicken – and, crucially, it’s now less than half the price of pork.

Zeitgeist

One of the UK’s biggest insurers has banned the words “energetic” and “enthusiastic” from job adverts to avoid putting off older applicants. Phoenix Group’s boss Andy Briggs – the government’s “business champion” for older workers – says “younger-age stereotypical words” could discourage sensitive over-50s from applying for a role.

Nature

The winners and runners-up of the 2021 Ocean Art Underwater Photo Contest have been announced. The subjects include a green sea turtle hatchling in Australia, a Caledonian carp in the South Pacific, a yellow pygmy goby guarding its eggs in the Philippines, and a group of pilot whales near Tenerife. See the full selection here.

 

Quoted

quoted 19.01

“Trust is gained in teaspoons and lost in buckets.”

Old US military saying


18 January

In the headlines

Boris Johnson should resign if he knowingly misled parliament about the lockdown-busting party in the Downing Street garden, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab told Good Morning Britain. Dominic Cummings, the PM’s former top aide, says he is prepared to “swear under oath” that he talked to Johnson about the “bring your own booze” event before it took place, a claim No 10 has denied. The UK has sent “troops and hi-tech weapons” to Ukraine, says the Mail, in a bid to thwart a feared Russian invasion. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace warned MPs that a “very, very bloody war” could be imminent. Police had to break up a hotel drinking session involving England and Australia cricketers at 6am yesterday morning. The players, still in their whites after the final game of the Ashes, were told they were being “too loud” and ordered to go to bed.

Comment

Dominic Cummings

Johnson is the target of a coup

Boris Johnson deserves little sympathy over Partygate, says Dan Hodges in The Mail on Sunday. But it’s time we acknowledged an important point: the prime minister is “facing a coup”. Specifically, he is being targeted in a “meticulously planned” putsch by his former aide Dominic Cummings. It was the PM’s “arch nemesis” who first revealed that a party took place in Downing Street in May 2020. He’s also responsible for countless other “leaks and steers about other parties and Covid indiscretions”. Cummings openly admits he is trying to oust Johnson from office. He wants revenge, and thinks Johnson is “squandering the opportunities provided by his Brexit and general election triumphs”.

Russia

Vladimir Putin has saved Nato

Vladimir Putin may well have saved Nato, says Gérard Araud in Le Point. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, the organisation became an alliance without an enemy. Besides a couple of missions in the Balkans to stop “inter-ethnic unrest”, its “raison d’être” gradually disappeared. Donald Trump, echoing public opinion, “marvelled that the United States was prepared to wage war for Montenegro”, and questioned why America was paying to protect rich European countries that weren’t making proper contributions of their own. Emmanuel Macron labelled the bloc “brain dead” and pushed for the EU to go its own way and build “strategic autonomy” from the US.

Tomorrow’s world

There’s an innovative solution for people who feel overwhelmed by their inbox: “slow email”. With the Pony Messenger app, you can send or receive emails just once a day – it’s essentially a postman and post box for the digital age. I’m a fan, says Ian Bogost in The Atlantic. Pony offers a “somewhat novel way of doing one specific thing online slightly more deliberately than you did before. If a thousand such flowers were to bloom, perhaps the internet’s landscape would become more humane.”

Shopping

I think “joots” – a “magical combination” of jeans and boots – might be the best idea humans have had in years, says Emilia Petrarca in The Cut. “Maybe ever.” The garment is a new favourite with celebrities like Kim Kardashian. Think of all the time and worry we will save now we no longer have to bother matching our shoes to our trousers.

Snapshot

It’s Hitler, depicted as Satan in a stained-glass window in the German town of Weil der Stadt. More than a dozen German churches still display images of the dictator, says The Times. Some are complimentary – in one he is a crucified figure on a cross next to Christ – but others were surreptitiously “mocking the Führer during the Third Reich”.

Quirk of history

Claude Monet’s haystack paintings from the 1890s are among the impressionist’s most famous works. But not everyone was a fan. “Apparently,” says Waldemar Januszczak in the BBC documentary Monet – The French Revolutionary, “the local peasants, who didn’t like Monet or modern art, would demolish their haystacks early on purpose, just to annoy him.”

On the money

TikTok’s biggest stars now earn more than America’s leading chief executives. Charli D’Amelio, a 17-year-old with 133.7 million followers, made £12.8m last year. The median pay for top CEOs was a meagre £9.6m. But the real money remains on YouTube: 23-year-old Jimmy Donaldson, aka MrBeast, earned £39m from videos of his elaborate stunts last year.

Eating in

Pizza hasn’t always been popular in Italy, says Karima Moyer-Nocchi in Food52. The dish evolved as a street food in Naples, where many locals were too poor to have kitchens or cutlery. As a result, pizza had a decidedly undesirable reputation. It was only after World War Two, when Italy saw mass migration from south to north, that it became a country-wide delicacy. When I interviewed Italian women in their 90s for a book, “none of them had eaten pizza before 1960. For them, it was like a foreign food.”

Quoted

quoted 18.1

“Rupert Grint has said that he likens ‘JK Rowling to an auntie — I don’t necessarily agree with everything my auntie says, but she’s still my auntie’. It’s so sweet. I am sure next time I hang my own auntie out to dry at the hands of a baying hate mob for callous reasons of professional opportunism and deep moral cowardice, I will think of Rupert Grint, and smile. Like a wolf.”

Giles Coren, in The Times


17 January

In the headlines

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has announced plans to freeze the BBC licence fee until 2024, and to scrap the payment entirely in 2028. It’s part of “Operation Red Meat”, a flurry of “populist announcements” to take the heat off Boris Johnson’s shaky position, says The Times. The PM is also putting the Royal Navy in charge of stopping migrants crossing the Channel. Two teenagers have been arrested in Manchester in connection with Saturday’s terrorist attack at a Texas synagogue. Malik Faisal Akram, from Blackburn, was killed during the 11-hour siege after he took several worshippers hostage. A man who joked on Facebook that “peas of all forms” should be outlawed and set on fire has been banned from the site for inciting violence, says The Sun. He’s appealing the decision.

Comment

Culture

Moral crusaders risk destroying all art

Art is no longer judged on its own merits, says Joanna Williams in The Times, but “according to the sins of the artist”. Last week a hammer-wielding maniac attacked a statue by sculptor Eric Gill outside the BBC’s offices in London. It’s a “beautiful” statue, but Gill, who died in 1940, sexually abused his daughters, his sisters and the family dog. Offensive behaviour, certainly, but does that give us the right to tear down his work? In 1967 the French theorist Roland Barthes argued for “the death of the author”, freeing artworks from the “tyranny of authorial intent”. Today’s artistic judgment boils down to a moral assessment of the “identity and intent” of the artist.

Gender

Teens cannot decide alone whether to change sex

There has been a “breakthrough” in the trans debate here in the US, says Andrew Sullivan in The Weekly Dish. In a first for the mainstream media, The New York Times has conceded that there is a growing divide among medical professionals over whether teenagers who undergo irreversible sex change surgery should first be screened for mental health issues. It’s astonishing this isn’t a given already. Some of the puberty blockers and other drugs used for these procedures can lead to “irreversible fertility loss”, along with “neurological damage, bone-density loss, and a permanent inability to experience sexual pleasure”. And their effects are almost never reversed. “In what other field of medicine do patients diagnose themselves, and that alone is justification for dramatic, irreversible medication?”

Life

A man from Wellingborough is the proud owner of Britain’s oldest working toaster, says The Daily Telegraph. Jimmy James, 69, inherited the Morphy Richards machine in 1993 from his parents, who had been given it as a wedding present in 1949. That makes it 73 years old – four years older than its owner. I make the odd repair every few years, says James, but it still works perfectly. “We use it all the time. When I’m 6ft under my children will use it too.”

Global update

The island of Tonga remains virtually cut off from the rest of the world following the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, a giant underwater volcano in the Pacific Ocean. The explosion, which was visible from space and heard nearly 6,000 miles away in Alaska, blasted ash almost 20 miles into the air and triggered a Pacific-wide tsunami. In Tonga, which was cloaked with ash and swamped by waves more than one metre high, it remains unclear how many people are missing or dead.

Snapshot

Prince Charles, who is exhibiting 79 of his watercolours at the Garrison Chapel in Chelsea until 14 February – the one above is of the south of France. “I took up painting entirely because I found photography less than satisfying,” he says. “Looking back now at those first sketches I did, I am appalled by how bad they are.”

 

On the money

Vaccine maker Pfizer is expected to announce that it made more than $80bn in revenue in 2021, says Reuters – the most a pharmaceutical company has ever earned. This year, revenue is predicted to top $100bn.

Quirk of history

In the Middle Ages, people divided their nights into two halves: a first sleep and a second sleep. The first typically lasted between 9pm and 11pm; the second began at about 1am. The period of wakefulness, known as “the watch”, was a “surprisingly useful window in which to get things done”, says Zaria Gorvett on BBC Future. People would add wood to their fire, say, or check up on farm animals. Some folk were more adventurous. One Luke Atkinson, in Yorkshire, is recorded as having “managed to squeeze in an early morning murder between his sleeps one night”.

Sport

Chinese authorities are doing their best to make the Beijing Winter Olympics a “zero Covid” event, says AP News. Athletes at the Games, which start on 4 February, have been told they must be vaccinated, wear masks indoors and outdoors – and clap for their teammates rather than cheer. It’s worse for locals. To stop the virus spreading before the Games, more than 20 million people have been locked down in six cities across China.

Quoted

quoted 17.01

“I have to be alone very often. I’d be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That’s how I refuel.”

Audrey Hepburn