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Despair has eaten into the British soul

It is a rough and tough culture shock to travel back to England from Australia at this time of the year. There it is springtime and the swallows have just arrived from the north; here the nights are closing in and the leaves are falling from the trees. But more striking than the contrast in weather is the difference in mood. Listening on the way back from Heathrow to Norfolk to the Today programme, with its succession of depressing, anxiety-inducing items, I began to wonder whether the greyness outside had not somehow eaten its way into the national soul. Have we always been this worried and despairing about everything? Until one gets re-acclimatised to the British view of the world, the mixture of panic and pessimism that is all around can be quite disconcerting. Australia may be a lucky country but it has its share of problems. Global warming will...

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English, eccentric and endearing: how Boris wins votes

Thought for the day. Ah, yes, right, jolly good. We like thoughts, don't we? No need to go over the top and become a complete and utter swot (thank you Willett, you can go now) but no one in politics should be a downright thicko (and goodnight to you, Prescott). When it comes to appealing to Mr and Mrs Nobody of Nowhere New Town, it is P for Personality that counts. What they want is jokes, surprises, a funny voice, an interesting hair-style – the kind of celebrity juggler who can keep his balls in the air while talking about policy at the same time. Frankly, that's not as easy as it looks. The question is, what thought? Something neat, I imagine, comprehensible to our old friend oi polloi, but not so simple-minded that the sewer-rats of the fourth estate can get their yellow, pestiferous fangs into the Johnson ankle....

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Mr Makeover proves a hit with the Misters and Misses

Hullo, children. Today we're going to meet one of the happiest families that has ever wobbled, hopped skipped or fallen flat on their faces in a children's book! How do I know they are happy? Because a little bird tells me that their little stories and characters were once sold for £28m. Hurrah for the Mr Men! And let's have some girly clapping and giggling for the Little Misses! They are some of the most successful children's book characters of all time. That's enough to make Mr Grumpy smile! Today's story is about Mr Makeover. Mr Makeover says: "Tick-tock, tick-tock, time is moving on, darlings. We need to get with the programme. You guys are just so yesterday. And frankly, I'd rather be dead than yesterday." At first, the Mr Men and the Little Misses ignored Mr Makeover. They couldn't understand why he was always going on about rebranding and...

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Booker Prize scandals we have loved (and imagined…)

Deliberations surrounding this year's Man Booker Prize have gone ominously quiet. Normally by this time, there should have been leaks, threats of walk-outs, and at least one revelation that a judge has been sleeping with a long-listed author. It is almost as if the team this year have simply been reading the novels in anticipation of a civilised discussion to be followed by the announcement of what will inevitably be called a "worthy winner". It is not how fiction is meant to be. Where are the rows about rip-offs and plagiarism? Where are the announcements that the prize has become a joke in bad taste, yet another victim of the age of reality TV, hoodies, balloon-breasted celebrities or whatever the bête noire of the moment happens to be? The novel may not be dead but frankly all the style and colour seems to have gone out of judging them. Before...

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The countryside in winter – that’s where the action is

The weekenders are gone now, their interest in the countryside disappearing at almost the precise moment when those other fair weather-friends, the swallows, have deserted us. The dew is heavy on the grass, the nights are closing in. A few late visitors may have lagged behind, bewildered and barbecue-less, and will catch a brief glimpse of what the countryside is like when its doors are not flung open, when it is not showing off for outsiders. "What on earth do they do all winter?" The question, often thought but rarely articulated, hangs in the air as, with obvious and touching relief, the town-dwellers get into their cars to leave. "And how on earth do they manage to stay sane?" It is true that winter in the country is not to everyone's taste. In those regular articles by bright young things who have relocated their family from Islington to Northamptonshire, only...

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The new wave of reality TV stars are a bunch of animals

When a person in public life compares himself to a plate of food, it is almost a sign that he is in a bad place, psychologically. So Peter Bazalgette's remarks on resigning from Endemol, the production company responsible for Big Brother, naturally caused me concern. Bazalgette must be some kind of cousin of mine – we are both descended from the Victorian sewer king Sir Joseph Bazalgette – and, although we have never met, there is a family bond there. What Baz, as we call him in the family, actually said was: "I've been on the set menu, the table d'hôte and I want to go à la carte." Naively, I read this apparently bizarre statement as a cry for help. I should have known better. Our family, perhaps thanks to our background in the sewage business, is at its best when things get a little mucky. Baz, I have...

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The green prince and the queen bee of Hollywood

Ever since it was announced last month that the heir to the throne was working with Hollywood on ideas for a documentary film, those of us in the environmental movement have been trying to find out more about the project. Agonisingly, all we have told is that, excited by the success of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, Prince Charles is planning to give his philosophical ideas the big-screen treatment. "Hollywood believe they have hit box-office gold," according to one report. But what's happening now? I rang my contacts in Tinseltown but all they could come up with was a transcript of Charles's first call to a leading producer called Al. It is not much but it is a start. "Hey, Prince. How ya doin' there?" "I'm doing absolutely fine, thank you very much. Al, wasn't it? One of my ancestors was called Albert. He was the Prince Consort – husband...

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Why Sunday night’s Fry-up left a greasy after-taste

What a very strange and not entirely pleasant business it must be to become a National Treasure. Some, like Sir David Attenborough or Michael Palin, might have been born for it. Others, like Billy Connolly, have had to work harder. Now and then, most recently during last weekend's profoundly embarrassing media love-in for Stephen Fry, one wishes that, for his or her own sake, the potential NT had quietly declined the honour, preferring to remain a common-or-garden, fallible celebrity. It can be done. Ronnie Barker saw institutionalised fame heading his way, and firmly retired from public life. Spike Milligan ratcheted up his stroppiness – when Prince Charles complimented him, a sure sign of incipient NT status, Milligan referred to him as a "grovelling little bastard". Peter Cook was openly bored by the idea. Dawn French seems to have dodged it by announcing that she is going to Cornwall to die....

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How turning off nanny’s heating will save the planet

It is a big week for Sir Giles Backwoodsman, the landowner and country sportsman who has been asked to explain the Conservative Party's new green policies to traditional party supporters across the country. "Green really can be blue, you know," Sir Giles told me when I interviewed him before a roaring fire in the old library at Backwoods Hall, where his family have lived for a few centuries. "What I'm going to tell the party's traditionalists at conference this week is pretty straightforward really. David and Zac – slightly iffy name in my view, but let that pass – both went to Eton. "Now let's face it, Eton doesn't turn out fools. If these two young chaps are saying the world's going to burn to a crisp unless we all pull our socks up, we should take them seriously. Now Central Office has told me that my job as an...

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New punctuation to hit the right note in these jazzy times

In Japan, they are writing novels on mobile phones. Nearer home, the quickest, hottest way to communicate is through a controversial, attention-grabbing blog. Forms of expression are moving and morphing, popping the buttons of the old conventions like the Incredible Hulk entering one of his green moods. Yet one aspect remains unchanged. Not only are rules of punctuation unchallenged, but there are many who believe that to tamper with them will lead to anarchy and moral chaos. Language is enjoying a wild party, but punctuation, like a disagreeable old aunt, refuses to join in. There have admittedly been feeble attempts to bring colour to the basic rules of language. Some time ago, computer users, aware perhaps that in their hands mere words were an unreliable resource, took to using "emoticons", naff little symbols designed to express the mood of the moment – smiley, frowny, randy, frazzled and so on. It...

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