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6-7 August

Long reads shortened

From errand boy to autocrat

When he was a boy, “no one wanted to play football with Mohammed bin Salman”, says Nicolas Pelham in The Economist. The seventh son of the 25th son of Saudi Arabia’s founding ruler, he was dismissed by classmates as a nobody. When he and his tribeswoman mother visited the palace where his father lived, his suave older half-brothers mocked him as the “son of a Bedouin”. During superyacht holidays on the French Riviera he was “treated like an errand boy”, sent ashore to buy cigarettes.


Sex sells? Not any more

Adonis himself would be jealous of the “golden skin and barely dressed bodies” we’ve ogled on Love Island, says Finn McRedmond in The Irish Times. For years, the “sexual neuroses” of beautiful people have been a cultural obsession, beamed out on primetime TV. But our enthusiasm for overtly sexual culture seems to be waning. Look at Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie brand built on the principle that “sex sells”. In 2011, more than 10 million viewers tuned in to watch scantily clad supermodels in its world-famous fashion show. But by 2019, viewing numbers had plummeted and the event was axed. The company’s valuation has plunged from $28bn in 2015 to less than $3bn today.


Paul Julius Reuter, founder of the news agency that bears his name, made his start with carrier pigeons, says Gordon Corera on The Rest is History. In 1850, the British entrepreneur began using a flock of 45 pigeons to fly news and stock prices between Brussels and Aachen, West Germany. The extraordinary speed of the birds, and the value of the information they carried, allowed him to secure a monopoly over all telegraph traffic between the two countries. In an enjoyable irony for a newsman, Reuter’s grave in West Norwood Cemetery has a spelling mistake – his middle name is written as “Juluis”. In 2002, Reuters added a small plaque correcting the typo.


England’s second civil war is upon us

The first modern revolution was in England, says Paul Kingsnorth in UnHerd. Our society attacked its very foundations: Englishmen killed the king, turned to republicanism, and unleashed a religious revolution “to scorch away the old world”. Nearly four centuries on, our history is repeating itself: back then it was medieval monarchy taking its dying breaths; now it’s the Anglo-American Empire. We’re once again bent on upending the “mores of previous centuries”: then by overturning feudal assumptions, now through the “endless ructions” of the culture wars. After decades of Western decline, leftist elites have descended into an “incoherent rage” only satisfied by deconstructing our way of life. Just as in the 17th century, there is a “culture of inversion”. Everything is being turned on its head, if not erased.


Angle grinders and flower planters

There’s something strange happening on the streets of English cities, says George Monbiot in The Guardian. Small groups of furious men, “whipped up by the media and opportunist politicians”, are trying to turn quiet, practical attempts to protect local people into a “full-blown culture war”. In their rage, these men have resorted to “arson, angle grinders and physical attacks on local people”. What is the “frightful cause” of this hysteria? Low traffic neighbourhoods.


Quoted 6.8.22

“Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats; they can do it, but they’d prefer not to.”

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman


Woodstock’s disastrous revival

In 1999, around 400,000 partygoers arrived in upstate New York for a festival marking the 30th anniversary of Woodstock. The four-day event was an “unmitigated disaster”, says Stuart Heritage in The Guardian. Whereas the original had free food kitchens and music by Ravi Shankar, Woodstock 99 flogged plastic water bottles for $4 a pop and majored on “mindlessly aggressive nu-metal”. High on drugs and badly dehydrated, many in the crowd turned feral. They pelted MTV hosts with missiles and tore down a sound tower. During Fatboy Slim’s DJ set, someone stole a van and drove it through the middle of the rave tent

Global update

Mon Dieu! Paris is going to the dogs

Paris has become an absurdly impractical city, says Tahar Ben Jelloun in Le Point. The City Hall has fiddled with the capital’s big thoroughfares, such as Place de la Bastille and Boulevard du Montparnasse, creating confusing, gridlocked traffic systems. Unions have embarked on their usual summer tradition of causing travel chaos that prevents people leaving for their holidays. Airports have become roiling “souks” where most flights are delayed or cancelled. At Orly, Paris’s second-largest airport, I had to queue for 57 minutes to get a taxi, and the driver told me that “he too had been waiting in a parking lot for hours”.


Magic mushrooms are no longer just for “hippies and those who wish to go on spiritual journeys”, says David Hillier in Vice. Now, “they’re for clubbers, pub-goers and partiers too”. The drug is increasingly being taken in small doses, infused into chocolate or tinctures, in casual settings. One aficionado and his friends took mushroom chocolates to watch Top Gun the other week. “I loved it,” he says, “though we missed half because we were giggling in the toilets.” He thinks mushrooms make people “generally nicer” than they would be on cocaine; switching from “packet” to “shrooms”, he says, has been a “positive influence” on his friend group. Another dabbler, who takes them when she goes clubbing, thinks they’re “a less sloppy alternative to booze”. But although the doses involved are small, they should still be handled with care. “Nobody wants a freakout down their local beer garden.”


The anguish and optimism of Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin’s natural habitat was the humdrum of suburbia, says The Economist. Yet his poems show none of the typical British “evasion and whimsy”. Many begin with bracing immediacy: “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night”; “The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found / A hedgehog jammed up against the blades”. His work grapples “frankly and sometimes devastatingly” with anguish – what he calls “the instantaneous grief of being alone”. But his manner “is less jaundiced than tender”. A newborn child is a “tightly-folded bud”; the sun a “petalled head of flames”. The racism and misogyny revealed in his letters is a “puerility at odds” with his poignant poetry. Yet for all his vitriolic beliefs, few British writers “so skilfully melded wit and pathos”.

Quirk of history

England and Germany used to have strong cultural ties, says Ed West in Wrong Side of History. Not only was our royal family German, but many in the upper classes spoke the language and holidayed in Germany or German-speaking Switzerland. The feeling was mutual, with many Germans imitating the manners and dress of English gentleman. When one British general dined in Berlin in 1911, he was astonished to find that all 40 guests spoke English fluently. This social affinity was erased by the two world wars, but genetic overlap remains. A UCL study a decade ago found that half of British males carry a bit of DNA with origins in northern Germany and Denmark. “There is no use in denying it,” declared Der Spiegel at the time. “The nation which most dislikes the Germans were once Krauts themselves.”


England’s 3×3 women’s basketball team at the Commonwealth Games included the “aptly named” Hannah Jump and Chantelle Handy, says Patrick Kidd in The Times. The pair are up there with Usain Bolt and Tiger Woods in my list of “sporting nominative determinisms”. Surely, though, none can beat the Russian hurdler Marina Stepanova.


quoted Melville 6.8.22

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”

Herman Melville



Pladda Rock is a 28-acre spit of land just south of Arran on Scotland’s west coast, says Metro. It has an “extensive range” of buildings, including a 1790s lighthouse and former lighthouse keeper’s cottage – though the long-uninhabited interiors need some serious work. There are dramatic views over the Kintyre peninsula, and on a clear day you can even see Northern Ireland. Access is via boat, using the sheltered concrete jetty, or you can land on the helipad. All for “less than the price of a London flat”: £350,000.


This three-bedroom flat is on bustling Portobello Road in west London. Set over three storeys, it has enormous floor-to-ceiling sash windows that flood the rooms with natural light. At the back is a west-facing terrace, perfect for al fresco dining or reading in the afternoon sun. Ladbroke Grove tube station is a five-minute walk away. £1.5m.