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January 07 2018


How Hitler could solve our housing crisis | David Mitchell

Thanks to the unhappy residents of Bell End, I’ve come up with a foolproof way to stop house prices soaring

The residents of Bell End, like many of us, hope 2018 will bring a fresh start. To be clear, I mean the residents of Bell End, the street in Rowley Regis, not Bell End, the village in Worcestershire. The latter Bell Enders probably hope it’ll be a fresh start too, but not in the same way as the Rowley Regis ones.

The English grammatical convention that names of places seldom take a definite or indefinite article is what prevents me from humorously clarifying that I also don’t mean the residents of a bell end – the microbes presaging a venereal disease, perhaps. But, let’s face facts: there’s no way that’s what anyone would really think the phrase “the residents of Bell End” could possibly mean. That double entendre simply will not hold together. Not even in a desperate last-minute script gagging-up session for a Carry On film would they get away with that.

For most people, the housing ladder is dangling above their heads from an oligarch's money-laundering zeppelin

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December 31 2017


The news from 2018. You couldn’t make it up | David Mitchell

Opening up the tax system to sponsorship? Speaking to the dead? You remembered it here first

There goes 2018 – did you miss it? It really flew by, didn’t it? But it’s over now and tomorrow morning it will be 2019. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

And it’s safe to believe me because 2017, that time of rampant falsity and inexactitude, exemplified by the fact that “fake news” was named word of the year, is long gone. Here and now (2018), we can’t get away with the untruths that there and then (2017) were so prevalent people would even lie about what year it was. In those bad old days (2017), someone might say it was another year – maybe 2018 – an act that now (2018), no one would ever get away with.

Despite generating a lot of publicity around its opening, the Fatberg hotel, was plagued with operating glitches

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December 17 2017


Our modern designs for life are no oil painting | David Mitchell

The dominance of modern art in galleries is reflected in minimal, ‘designed’ style in the home – but why should we clear our comfy clutter and gilt frames?

My parents are the owners of what I’m pretty sure is a bad painting of Neath Abbey. I can’t be completely certain because I know nothing about painting and I’ve never seen Neath Abbey. But it doesn’t look much like anything I have seen, so I’m willing to believe it looks like Neath Abbey. Though not that it looks exactly like Neath Abbey – it’s not credible to me that any medieval ruin (Neath Abbey is a medieval ruin) could, in real life, so closely resemble a vertical plane of dried paint.

My best shot at an objective conclusion about it is that someone of above average painting skill for a human, but below average for a professional artist, has rendered on canvas some shapes which, if you knew Neath Abbey, would remind you of it, but wouldn’t come close to fooling you that you were really looking at it.

Big expanses of floor or wall are perfect for a giant pair of neon lips, or half a Fiat Uno

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December 10 2017


Want a tip on weight loss? Don’t ask Mick Jagger | David Mitchell

There’s no point looking to celebrities for dietary advice – they have their own weird reasons for being thin

People won’t take dietary advice from obese nurses, but they will from stick-thin film stars – with terrible results in both cases. That was the news last week.

The first half of the above is an inference from a study in the journal BMJ Open saying that about 25% of nurses in the NHS are obese, a discovery the report’s lead author, Dr Richard Kyle of Edinburgh Napier University, declared to be “deeply worrying”. The depth of his concern surprised me considering that about 25% of the adult population is obese, which he must have known. So, what he’s found is that nurses are, on average, neither thinner nor fatter than the general population which, if I were him, is precisely what I would expect to find. Then again, calling the findings “deeply predictable” would probably have been a kick in the teeth for the people who’d just paid him to find them.

People unquestioningly believe the thin and rich, and ignore out of hand the utterances of the poor and chubby

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November 19 2017


The Earth may not be flat, but it just might be doomed | David Mitchell

A rise in the belief that scientists are lying about the planet being spherical is just one aspect of an internet-fuelled, progress-threatening suspicion of facts

“Nobody likes this uncomfortable feeling of being this tiny ball flying through space,” Mark Sargent, who believes that the world is flat, told the BBC the other day. I thought that was a revealing statement. I mean, don’t they? Personally, I don’t mind it. In fact, I’m not sure you can really feel it at all. Then again, I wouldn’t say I positively liked it either. I’m not against the world being flat. I’d be fine if it were. I’m content for the world to be whatever shape the world is. Unlike Mark Sargent, I don’t have a preference.

The remark gives an interesting insight into his approach. I’d say, if you’re trying to convince people of something that flies in the face of scientific orthodoxy, it’s advisable not to let slip that, before you started your researches, you had a huge emotional preference for what you ended up concluding. It may lead people to believe you’ve attached more weight to evidence supporting your theory than to evidence refuting it. And, let’s be honest, people are going to be pretty ready to believe that anyway because you’ve been trying to convince them that the world is flat. And it isn’t.

Boundless doubting could take us back to the stone age – and not in a time machine we’ve invented

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November 12 2017


Paddington and the Law of Unintended Consequences | David Mitchell

M&S’s Christmas advert has Britain’s favourite bear hugging a criminal while McDonald’s unwittingly casts McNuggets in an unsavoury light

The new M&S advert may not, I’m sorry to say, be as conducive as its producers hoped to the spirit of Christmas. On the face of it, it’s sweet enough: very much a Christmas advert of the new school. No mention of M&S products, no “Massive boxes of Chrissy Chocs going cheap!” yelled in a persuasive voice. No scenes in the shop: “I’m looking for a present for a disliked uncle and I’m on a tight budget!” “This way, madam – these cardigans look much better than they really are!” Not even an idealised depiction of a shopping street with thickly falling fake snow.

No, as is the current fashion, they’ve gone with the heartwarming yuletide fable format, as pioneered by Charles Dickens and then at long last given a capitalist raison d’etre a century and a half later by John Lewis. It’s set on Christmas Eve, in a quiet street near sleepy, snow-covered Primrose Hill – the closest Marks is a Simply Food in Camden – and it features the lovable Paddington Bear, the second phase of whose sensitive reboot is certain to be the star atop the glittering tree of our cinemas’ seasonal offering. So far so adjective. But adjective is a noun! So far so nounlike. Festive! That’s it.

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November 06 2017

The Sucker

November 05 2017


When life imitates the art of sitcom | David Mitchell

The woman awarded damages after being pulled over by her friend’s dog sounds like a scene from a sitcom. What would happen if our funniest small-screen mishaps were for real?

Picture the scene: a crisp February day in 2012 in Trent Park, Enfield. Actually, I don’t know it was crisp – I just know it was February, so crisp is a possibility. I’m ruling out balmy, humid and close. It could have been cloudy, mild for the time of year, or windy; there might have been driving rain or even snow. Or uneven snow. Freezing fog is also an option, but it would get in the way of your picturing the scene so I’m ruling it out.

2012 anyway – you’re familiar with that. If you’re not, you’re a very advanced reader for your age. So, early/mid-coalition, Chris Huhne’s just resigned, the Olympics are coming up, Jimmy Savile is dead but not yet discredited, and there are 2.5 million people out of work. Look, I’m paying for this internet connection so I’m going to use it.

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October 29 2017


Could a farting statue unite Brexit Britain? | David Mitchell

The V&A’s plan to make Michelangelo’s David fart every time someone walks past is a brilliant idea…

Where do you stand on farts? Sounds like a set up for a joke – the sort a Californian tech giant’s AI software might crack in an attempt to emulate its human creators: where do you stand on farts? You cannot stand on them for they are gaseous. “Stick to equations, Joketron 3.2! You’re even less funny than Joketron 2.7!” “Joketron feel shame. Joketron crave intoxication yet has no consumption port. Joketron go back to writing poems about imprisonment.” “And you’ve stopped using pronouns again! I don’t know why I bother! Pass the sushi and money.”

The reason an artificial intelligence entity might make a joke about farts is that, in its analysis of human culture, it will have noticed that farts are supposedly funny. So my question is: are they really? And my answer is yes. I say they are. Some people think they definitely aren’t but there’s something in the intensity of their rejection of the notion that there’s anything at all amusing about the little rectal eruptions that, to my mind, just makes them funnier.

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October 24 2017

Rise and Fall of the Rupert Empire

October 22 2017


The trouble with getting lost in your own world | David Mitchell

Protecting students from ‘distressing’ plays and hi-tech targeted ads further removes us from a shared sense of what is real

Do we really want to know what’s actually going on? In the world and in the past and in plant cells and in space and in the flat upstairs? I get that it’s always going to be impossible to be sure. All any of us has to go on is a load of nerve signals hastily compiled into a vaguely coherent impression by the grey sponge that seems to be the site of the key thing that makes each of us whoever each of us is. It’s an impression that can get skewed by fear, rage, self-interest, hunger, a bad back or by being, to a greater or lesser extent, mad.

Anyone who’s suffered from sciatica will tell you how disconcerting it is to feel a pain you’re convinced is emanating from your leg but which is in fact caused by an injury, located somewhere in the spine, to the nerve responsible for leg news. But it doesn’t feel like a faulty line – the nerve doesn’t crackle. It just feels like a sore leg. It is a totally convincing, rather undramatic, delusion and a salutary reminder that when we think we’re definitely looking at a table, that’s actually just the narrative our brain is imposing upon unsubstantiated data supplied by the optic nerve.

Essentially, the appearance of a famous landmark will be different according to who you are

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October 15 2017


Is living without a shared religion reason to rejoice? | David Mitchell

Our forebears’ unquestioning belief in a higher power gave them a confidence that it’s hard not to envy

“We are exceptional. It’s important to know that we are different,” former British Museum director Neil MacGregor said about Britain last week. “We are a very unusual society. We are trying to do something that no society has really done.” Get off the fence, Neil! Are you for Brexit or against?

He wasn’t talking about Brexit. I mean, he’s bound to be against, isn’t he? If Neil MacGregor is pro-Brexit then all bets are off and it probably turns out David Attenborough has a personalised numberplate and Paris Hilton collects Toby jugs.

More and more of us cobble together our own belief systems in spare moments while holding down other jobs

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October 08 2017


Is the writing on the wall for Theresa May and Britain? | David Mitchell

The letters fiasco at the Tories’ conference suggests that this country is becoming a laughing stock

The aspect of Theresa May’s calamitous conference speech that worried me most was the letters falling off the wall. For most viewers, that was just the amusing punchline to the sketch. The main bits were the comedian with the spoof P45, the coughing, the water, the throat sweet from Philip Hammond, the throat sweet joke from Theresa May, and, of course, Amber Rudd bullying Boris Johnson into helping her elicit a standing ovation to buy time for their leader to hawk something meaningful up in the hope of restoring medium-term vocal competence.

Summarised like that, it sounds like a brilliantly entertaining speech. But one must remember that these titbits of non-tedium were spread out over an entire hour. It’s a gag rate that even the least sparky series of Last of the Summer Wine never stooped to. Which is why, even though I am writing an article about the speech for a national newspaper, I have not watched it. I absolutely refuse to watch it. Nothing on earth is worth that.

She could become like one of those children who’ve been sneezing solidly for years in defiance of global specialists

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October 01 2017


Lobbying firms paying our MPs? It’s probably fine… | David Mitchell

The Tory politician James Duddridge pockets £3,300 a month from a lobbying company, but don’t worry. If it were a problem, it wouldn’t be legal

What is the advantage of letting sitting MPs work for lobbying firms? What are the pluses of that, for the country? Because we do allow it, so I’m assuming there must be some upside.

After all, there are clear advantages to many things we don’t allow: smoking on petrol station forecourts, for example. Allowing that would mean, if you’re addicted to smoking, or enjoy smoking, or think smoking makes you look cool, you could do it while filling your car with petrol, polishing its bonnet, going to buy snacks, checking the tyres and so on. You wouldn’t be inconvenienced by either the discomfort of nicotine withdrawal or a hiatus in the image of nonchalant suavity that having a fag in your mouth invariably projects.

Maybe Duddridge just pops in once a month and is a master of clearing photocopier jams

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September 24 2017


How Front Row sparked real drama in theatreland | David Mitchell

Outrage ensued when Amol Rajan, Giles Coren and Nikki Bedi admitted to being less than ardent theatre-goers. But shouldn’t we take their honesty onboard?

The presenters of the BBC’s new TV version of arts programme Front Row, launched yesterday (which, at time of writing, is the day after tomorrow), have already sparked controversy. And the show has only just started (at time of writing, hasn’t started yet)! Before I get into that (at time of writing, after I’ve got into it but now I’m going back and putting this in at the start), I should say that one of those presenters is my brother-in-law, Giles Coren. Which means you’re even freer than usual to ignore everything I say because of bias. If so, I applaud the choice – go on your way with my blessing, helping yourself to a history GCSE on your way out.

The controversy is about theatre, one of the art forms the new show will be covering. In an interview with the Radio Times, all three presenters made remarks about it that annoyed people. Amol Rajan said he didn’t get to the theatre as much as he’d like to because of his young baby, but that his “favourite place is Shakespeare’s Globe and I love musical theatre. I went to New York a couple of years ago and saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock”.

I’m not sure theatre criticism should be the preserve of those who know what they’re talking about

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September 17 2017


Why novelty versions of Monopoly are just wrong | David Mitchell

From Peppermint Wotsits to Dachshund Monopoly, modern marketing has given us no end of pointless variations that should never have passed Go

Let me put my cards on the table: I’m not a fan of the orange KitKat. It’s nothing to do with Nestlé’s marketing of baby milk, before you look at the web address and mistake this for the Guardian. Oh no, as customers who’ve paid will realise, this is the Observer and I don’t give a shit. I’ll happily eat a normal KitKat and let the world be damned.

The way globalisation is going, you’d never get anywhere if you started worrying about the moral failings of whoever owns the thing that owns the thing that owns the thing that makes the thing you need. Doubtless most prayer books are now published by subsidiaries of conglomerates with satanist mission statements. I bet the Sultan of Brunei somehow controls the global supply of a dye vital to manufacturing rainbow flags. And probably all of the world’s, I don’t know, birthday cards are made by corporations partly owned by pension funds managing the retirement savings of, among other people, racists. And racists hate birthdays.

Who, in 2017, thought of moving Monopoly out of the field of property development and into palaeontology?

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August 27 2017


How would I like my steak? Well, not on a shovel… | David Mitchell

A survey has revealed our supposed hatred of zany crockery. But it performs a useful social function

Slates have been getting a slating this week. Get it?! Slates? Getting slated? They can’t use that in the headline now – I’ve nabbed it. A lovely great big apposite yet unenjoyable pun. Stick that on your slate and eat it. Perhaps using some sort of gooey reduction as a gum, just to keep all the wrong-coloured tomatoes in position.

Actually, I stole the idea from the Daily Mail which went with “Slated! Plates back on menu”, although there’s a chance that, unprompted, I could have thought of it myself. I don’t think it’s ridiculous self-flattery to suggest that. It’s just a pun on slate – it’s not the Dyson Airblade. Though both are products of Eurosceptic creativity. Maybe they can make Brexit work if they maintain this level of output. Though some claim it just makes an unpleasant noise and blasts microparticles of excrement all over the place, poisoning the atmosphere. I’m talking about the Daily Mail.

Who doesn’t want to come across as in touch with the zeitgeist, but too down-to-earth to be impressed?

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August 20 2017


The last person left who daren’t diss the Donald… | David Mitchell

As the civilised world condemned the US president over Charlottesville, Theresa May hedged her bets – someone has to think of potential trade deals

Theresa May briefly had my sympathy last week. She was in Portsmouth to celebrate the fact that Britain’s new £3bn floating table had made it all the way round from Scotland without sinking or chipping a bit off Kent or being towed away by the Russians. It was supposed to be a happy event – a lovely huge weapon of war. Of course we all hope it’ll never have to be used to kill people. It works out a lot cheaper if you just use it to threaten to kill them.

“What on earth am I going to say,” she must have asked herself and her aides, “about what Donald Trump said about the events in Charlottesville? People are going to insist I say something about that. We need to think long and hard to find a form of words that will keep me out of trouble without sounding like they’ve been thought long and hard about to keep me out of trouble.”

May didn’t actually slag him off. She asserted a contrary view, but didn’t then say: '…President Trump is wrong and bad'

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August 06 2017


Christmas comes but once a year, starting in July | David Mitchell

The sooner we can embrace a year-round state of festive retail opportunities, the better

“Any customers that aren’t really into Christmas this early can always ignore it,” said Eleanor Gregory, Christmas and home buyer at Selfridges, about the opening of its Christmas store last week. Am I wrong to project a slight tartness on to that remark? As if the first draft of “can always ignore it” had been “know where they can stick it”?

I probably am wrong. Eleanor seemed fairly upbeat in her other comments: “This new extension to our usual offer is addressing this growing demand for convenience – domestic customers who love to Christmas shop very early in the year to get it wrapped and taken off their to-do list.”

If aliens observed us throughout December, they might think they’d got a handle on what we’re like

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July 30 2017


We should take pride in Britain’s acceptable food | David Mitchell

The fact that 12% of Spaniards now think our cuisine is a reason to visit the UK should be a cause for celebration

A phrase really jumped out at me from a newspaper last week. The Times said a recent survey into Spanish attitudes to Britain, conducted by the tourism agency Visit Britain, “found that only 12% of Spaniards considered the UK to be the best place for food and drink”. That, I thought to myself, may be the most extraordinary use of the word “only” I have ever seen.

Has its meaning recently flipped? Has it been warped by an internet hashtag or ironic usage by rappers? Is it like how “bad” or “wicked” can mean good, and actors receiving awards use the word “humbled” to mean “incredibly impressed with myself”? Because, if “only” still means what I think it means, the paper is implying it expected more than 12% of the people of Spain to think Britain was “the best place for food and drink”.

British food usually averages out as fine. Lots of us are really fat now – that’s got to be a good sign

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