John Bull and the blonde bombshells

🍾 Gaddafi in the Bellagio | 🎙️ Medieval LOLs | 👶 1,000 babies


A 19th-century cartoon of John Bull surveying the chaos abroad

John Bull and the blonde bombshells: how the tables have turned

There’s been a sharp reversal in the fortunes of Britain and its peers lately, says Emma Duncan in The Times. Since 2016, foreigners have asked about the state of the nation “in the delicate manner of an inquiry into the condition of a mad relation”. Meanwhile, abroad “was a rather sane and sensible place”. Joe Biden steadied the American ship after four years of Donald Trump; Emmanuel Macron curbed the revolutionary tendencies of the French; “the Germans just went on being German”. How the tables have turned. We’ve just elected a centrist government “with no razzmatazz” and sensible policies, while hard-right blondes – Giorgia Meloni, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Alice Weidel – are in power or in the ascendant in Italy, the Netherlands, France and Germany. And unless America’s Democratic Party pulls “an enormous rabbit out of its hat” before November, Trump will join them.

Meanwhile, Labour’s ascent leaves our government, unusually, “to the left of most of Europe”, and far less chaotic. I’m reminded of those 19th-century cartoons, in which sensible John Bull “observes with alarmed disapproval” the turbulence on the Continent. “Keir Starmer would fit the role nicely if he put on a few pounds.” Historically, a Labour government would be regarded as “bad news for the economy”. But these days, the right is just as likely to splash the cash as the left. Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for “spraying the national wealth around” is shared by his fellow blonde bombshells in Europe, which make a fiscal stickler like Starmer all the more attractive to investors. The more uncertain the world has become, the higher the premium investors place on stability. At last, we can be the ones asking foreigners “with an air of concern” why their countries are in such a mess.


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Mutassim Gaddafi in 2009. Juan Barreto/Getty

Covering up for the bad guys

Washington PR man Phil Elwood has spent decades pulling strings on behalf of the world’s bad guys, says Charlie English in The Guardian, peddling spin for dictators, war criminals and hostile states. One of his earliest jobs in the “reputation laundrette” was to accompany Mutassim Gaddafi, son of the Libyan dictator, on a “drug-and alcohol-fuelled bender through Las Vegas” to try to keep him out of the papers. The young PR man spent the night running through the halls of the Bellagio sourcing vintage champagne, private jets and much more for Gaddafi junior’s entourage, terrified that the “intoxicated, armed Libyans” would shoot him if anything went wrong.

Today, Elwood is “vindictive about his profession”, and out for blood. The particular focus of his ire is the firm where he performed his lowest tricks: Brown Lloyd James, which was founded by The Beatles’ old manager Peter Brown. It was Brown, says Elwood, who set up the now infamous 2011 US Vogue interview with the wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, by “picking up the phone to his old friend Anna Wintour”. The article that subsequently appeared, headlined A Rose in the Desert, gushed that Asma was “glamorous, young, and very chic”, and described the tyrant’s family as “wildly democratic”. But it’s not just BLJ. In 2018, another Washington firm took $18.8m from the Saudis in “PR clean-up fees” after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; one in New York took $40m off the Kremlin and Gazprom in the lead up to the Sochi Winter Olympics. And Elwood himself is still at it. “I consider every crisis a golden opportunity,” Elwood says. “If my client lights their house on fire, you can be damn sure I’ll get the press to blame outdated fire codes.”

All the Worst Humans by Phil Elwood is available here.

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The Knowledge recommends

Jonathan Meijer with one of his children. Netflix

TV – The Man with 1,000 Kids 
This stranger-than-fiction documentary tells the story of Dutch scam artist Jonathan Meijer, who travelled the world persuading would-be mothers into hiring him as a sperm donor. As a result, the world is “awash with this tousle-haired narcissist’s little swimmers”, says The Times, with his offspring thought to number as many as 3,000. It’s the gripping story of a man “so blinded by self-love he thought he was doing the world a favour”. Three episodes, around 40 mins each.

Podcast – Medieval LOLs
This podcast from the London Review of Books sets out to decide whether the Middle Ages was a funny time. “Spoiler: it really was,” says The Guardian. The presenters are well informed, charismatic and “perfectly happy to jump from the academic to the obscene” if required. They lead listeners through the literature of the age – from Chaucer to fabliaux – highlighting the humorous side of the sometimes-tedious medieval canon. Seven episodes, around 30 mins each.

Quirk of history

Harrison Ford with the cup of Christ in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

The Spanish postie who saved the Holy Grail

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, everyone from Spanish revolutionaries and Nazis to MI6 agents wanted to steal the Holy Grail, says Adam Hay-Nicholls in Air Mail. But they were all eluded by a Valencian postwoman. Sabina Suey was a worshipper at the Valencia Cathedral which housed the Santo Cáliz: the cup most often cited as the true Grail by Western Christianity. The city suffered badly from a heavy-handed Republican military presence, with priests, nuns and bishops murdered and churches looted. Fearing the Cathedral was next, Suey took the cup from its shrine, wrapped it in cotton wool and newspaper and placed it in a box, which she secretly stowed in the springs of her sofa. When militia members burst into the cathedral hours later and made a beeline for the cup, it was nowhere to be found.

Republican fighters searched Suey’s house three times, never discovering the chalice. But soon, whispers of her involvement reached the ears of British and German spies. She was approached by MI6 agents who offered her family safe passage to England in return for the Grail. She denied any knowledge of it. Another agent made an approach on behalf of Heinrich Himmler, who was obsessed with the occult powers of the Grail and believed it would be the “ultimate prize” for Hitler. Again, Suey refused, and “somehow lived to tell the tale”. When Valencia was liberated in 1939, she handed it to the Recovery Board of the National Artistic Treasure. Her family still has the sofa.



“A chilling characteristic of politicians is that they’re not in it for the money.”
PJ O’Rourke

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