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March 26 2017

09:00

So Theresa May thinks she just needs to look the part… | David Mitchell

The prime minister probably wanted her photoshoot for US Vogue to show us ‘who she really is’

As someone who finds Theresa May quite irritating, her US Vogue photoshoot was never going to appeal to me. So the fact that I found it grim doesn’t mean, I must grudgingly admit, that it was a mistake. My opinion doesn’t really matter here. What a self-defeating statement to find myself making in the first paragraph of a column.

So I may as well try to look at it from her point of view – summon up some empathy, a term that May herself disdained in the accompanying interview as “a very ‘today’ word”. She’s not completely fashion mad then. She prefers to say “understanding”. Thus the social worker becomes the biologist: while we may empathise with our fellow humans, we merely understand the life cycle of the cockroach.

I’m not saying she’s ugly. Or attractive. I’m trying not to form any opinion on that because I don’t think it’s fair

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March 19 2017

10:00

Choose my own Netflix adventure? No thanks | David Mitchell

The online streaming service plans to put viewers in control of TV storylines. Yes, see how they like it…

Apparently some people are capable of lucid dreaming. In a dream, they can control what’s going on – direct the actions of themselves and others in ways that please, excite, arouse or interest them. That would be my worst nightmare. Worse than my worst nightmare to date which, though terrifying, was at least not of my own conscious (while unconscious) invention.

People like stories. Not as much as food or shelter, but a lot. And a good story hinges on what happens next

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January 15 2017

10:00

Let’s not be led any further up the garden bridge | David Mitchell

It was a nice idea, but the struggling project for a new London river crossing has become far more hassle than it’s worth

When I first heard about the garden bridge, I thought it was a nice idea. A big pedestrian bridge with a park on it, joining up attractive areas of central London. What’s not to like? It sounds a little bit magic: a garden on a bridge. Wow, there’s a whole tree growing on that bridge! Like an aquarium in a pillar, a hotel made of ice, or a firework on a hat.

It’s got a dash of hanging gardens of Babylon, a touch of rooftop pool, and a smidgen of the old London Bridge, which had shops on it and one imagines as very picturesque, though probably didn’t look so to people at the time who didn’t have any ugly concrete or uPVC to compare it to and were fed up with everything being so damp and smelly. Not to mention the high infant mortality rate. And complete lack of democratic accountability. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realise history must have been really difficult to enjoy if you were actually in it.

It doesn’t feel like the right time for a blowout. Maybe a decade ago, when London was optimistic and self-confident

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January 08 2017

10:00

You mean you doubt Diet Coke’s health claims? | David Mitchell

Opponents of fizzy drinks and too much sugar are clearly on the side of good, but their arguments need to be bulletproof

We’re supposed to drink water – that’s the point. “Plain water” is, as Prof Carlos Monteiro of São Paulo University puts it, “the desirable source of hydration for everyone”. It sounds like a fizzy-drink slogan translated from the Japanese. But it isn’t. It very much isn’t. Because it’s water that, in fact, is it and the real thing and, it is to be hoped, the taste of a new generation. Water, the very first drink mankind discovered, remains unbettered. What a damning illustration of the futility of commerce.

These are the findings of a new thing. I’m calling it a thing to be on the safe side because I’m having trouble nailing down specifically what sort of thing the thing is. In the parlance of headlines it’s a “say scientists” or a “say researchers”. It’s maybe a report or a paper or a study? It’s been created by academics from three universities – one in the UK and two in Brazil – and I think it’s the product of analysis of lots of previous … things that have been written about fizzy drinks and, specifically “diet drinks”, over the last 30 things (years). It’s been published in a thing called PLOS Medicine, making it a thing within a thing, but the thing it’s within is a peer-reviewed medical journal, rather than a tabloid newspaper, a conspiracy theorists’ message board or a thinktank’s website, which bodes relatively well for the credibility of the inner thing.

It’s right up there with my report which argued that holding a pitbull on a straining leash may be a cause of tattoos

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January 01 2017

10:00

My grateful dispatches from the end of 2017… | David Mitchell

From the revelation that nuclear weapons don’t exist to Richard Branson’s reinvention of the spork, 2017 was better than expected

It’s hard to believe that 2017 is already over. But we must believe it. Or, if not quite believe it, at least entertain the notion for the next few minutes.

2017 certainly hasn’t been as bad as 2016’s worst doom-mongers would have had us believe. After all, a human still lives to write this, and several others to read it. So it’s been much better than many expected. And even a real glass-half-empty type would have to admit that, regrettable though events on the international stage have been, what we’ve just undergone was really quite a small nuclear war.

The irrefutable fact is that the remake is the most profitable form of film. So they’ve got to be released first

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December 18 2016

10:00

Change my power supplier? I haven’t got the energy | David Mitchell

Life is too short for ‘shopping around’ between companies offering identical sorts of gas or electricity

The only time I changed energy supplier was an extremely dispiriting experience. I was at home in my flat, during the daytime, enjoying that opium of the freelancer, daytime TV. The doorbell rang and someone wearing an npower zip-up jacket and carrying an npower laminated pass, to indicate that, if he were a robber, he was at least diligent, said hello. He showed few other signs of diligence so I thought it safe to let him in.

It turned out he was indeed from npower, one of the big six energy suppliers who, according to entirely unsurprising analysis released by the energy regulator Ofgem last week, are between them overcharging about 19 million customers. Npower first invaded my consciousness when its multicoloured logo was a sudden and unwelcome replacement for the more tasteful Cornhill Insurance letterhead on the grass at Test matches. How unexpected that it should be the actions of the Conservative party, I reflected at the time, that have ruined Lord’s.

The privatised sector has always seemed like it was playing at capitalism – like a child who pretends to serve you tea

Related: EDF to cut gas prices but hike electricity tariffs in 2017

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December 11 2016

10:00

The painful truth about a fair crack of the whip | David Mitchell

Faiz Siddiqui believes his university teaching at Oxford was ‘appallingly bad’. But does that mean that he was treated unfairly?

If I were going to sue my university for something I didn’t get while I was there, I don’t think I’d pick “a first in history”. That’s not what frustrated me or felt unfair. Which is where I differ from 38-year-old Oxford graduate Faiz Siddiqui. When he bitterly reflected on the ways his student days had been a letdown, it was the 2:1 that rankled.

Like Siddiqui, I didn’t get a first. Unlike him, I didn’t get a 2:1 either. But, looking back, academic success really wasn’t what I was desperate for. Perhaps I didn’t want it enough. Though it really, really felt like I did. As I remember, I wanted it urgently all the time. Which is one of the reasons I didn’t get a first.

Fairness is like a new God. We invoke His name all the time. Yet, deep down, few of us believe He really exists

Related: Graduate sues Oxford University for £1m over his failure to get a first

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December 04 2016

00:05

The Observer is part of a noble tradition, treating a complex world with compassion

Over 225 years, the newspaper has unleashed billions of words and phrases challenging its readers always to see things in context
• Click here for more on the Observer at 225

You are reading this. That’s all I know for sure. Whoever you are, wherever you are, whenever you are, you are reading this. I am definitely correct about that. And if I’m not, these words have gone into no one’s head so no one knows I wasn’t. I am either right or the secret of my wrongness could not be safer.

You are now reading this, though after a paragraph like the above you may be fewer in number. My prose will be slashing people down like the German machine-guns at the Somme. Although, actually, I don’t know whether you, who are reading this, also read the first paragraph. That could have been torn away or obscured by ketchup or not visible over the person on the crowded train’s shoulder. This bit may be the only fragment you’ve seen – perhaps it’s being quoted on a website dedicated to exposing flippant references to mass death, or maybe you’ve just exposed this single yellowed inch when tearing up a carpet in a flat you’ve just bought to see what the floors are like underneath, or maybe these words are frozen on the screen of your crashed computer after you accidentally clicked on the wrong link while looking for an interview with David Mitchell the novelist and you’re just glassily staring at them while contemplating posting a turd to the head office of Hewlett-Packard.

What’s inside may be complicated or upsetting – but it won’t be cruel, simplistic or a lie

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November 27 2016

10:00

After Farage, who else might Trump want to hire for us? | David Mitchell

Nigel Farage as US ambassador might be only the start of president-elect Trump’s recruitment ambitions for the UK

Donald Trump should be peeling potatoes this Christmas. That is something I would like to see. Not because I want to reduce his opulent lifestyle to a repetitive menial task – although I would be fine with that – but because I’ve got a hunch he might be good at it.

Not the first one. I think it might be difficult to persuade Donald Trump to peel the first potato. I don’t know how many he’s previously peeled in his life, though he actually might. I doubt it’s a figure he’d release to the media, mind you. But it may be so small that he’s kept it in his head. I don’t think I’ve peeled particularly many potatoes over the years, but it’s enough that I’ve lost count. That’s not necessarily true for Donald.

Find that guy James Bond is based on, give him the job. If he’s dead, give his son the job

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November 13 2016

10:00

Does Trump’s win mean that progress is history? | David Mitchell

Things don’t necessarily get worse, I’m not saying that; but they don’t always improve, either

A fortnight ago, when the clocks went back, a joke was doing the rounds in various forms. They all went something like: “Don’t forget to turn the clocks back this weekend. Unless you voted for Brexit, in which case you’ve already turned them back 30 years.”

These obviously weren’t pro-Brexit jokes. The notion of turning the clock back is not supposed to connote a return to the good old days or a restoration of youth: it signifies regression, progress reversed, a deliberate worsening. So an obvious implication is that their writers think, and think that most people think, that in general things get better over time.

I am bewildered by everyone’s conviction that anyone who disagrees with them has been misinformed

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November 06 2016

10:00

Why do we expect the Olympics to keep on giving? | David Mitchell

The much vaunted ‘legacy’ from the 2012 games has not come to pass – maybe we should be happy just to have enjoyed them

The Olympics is a puzzling phenomenon. I came to this conclusion reading a news report about the legacy of the 2012 London games. It said there basically wasn’t one. The family gathered nervously to hear the reading of the will only to learn that the bejewelled old dowager had pissed everything away ante-mortem. No urban regeneration for Great Nephew the Lee Valley, no sustained increase in trade for dodgy Uncle Tourism and nothing of any real value for kindly Cousin Shortage of Affordable Housing. No inheritance but debts and a drawer full of useless trinkets (stadiums).

I realise this metaphor is screaming like an Elizabethan Catholic under interrogation, but it wasn’t me who coined the phrase “Olympic legacy”. I just copied it to try and sound modern. That’s what we media types have to do when we enter middle age, as well as pretending we can work our phones and buying fashionable spectacles.

I’m sure we could price up some other stuff: falling in love, having a child, a crisp autumn day, a satisfying fart

Related: London's Olympic legacy: a suburb on steroids, a cacophony of luxury stumps

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October 23 2016

09:00

Can’t we agree to just not have Heathrow at all? | David Mitchell

Given that climate change is apparently still happening, quibbling over a new runway raises a more obvious question…

Is climate change still happening? You don’t hear so much about it, do you? It’s like the Doctor Who reboot – I presume it’s still going on, but it’s struggling to stay in the headlines. These days it’s all Bake Off, Trump, Isis and Poldark.

It must still be happening, because if it had stopped we would definitely have heard – you don’t hear much about Sean Connery, but it’ll be all over the news when he dies. A sudden halt in global warming would be an unmissable opportunity for climate change deniers to crow, for dark-souled petrol salesmen to denounce the scientific community as a bunch of delusional tree-huggers, for the scum of the earth to lay into the Friends of the Earth. So, I think it’s safe to say climate change is still happening and the world’s scientists aren’t facing the spectre of being wrong instead of the more familiar spectre of being doomed. What a relief.

I'm not a very environmentally friendly person. I'd much rather turn a tree into a chair or a pizza box

Related: Climate change means no airport expansion – at Heathrow or anywhere | George Monbiot

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October 16 2016

09:00

When bitter tastes sweet, seeming is believing

The new ‘Taste Buddy’s aim of making broccoli taste like baked Alaska is a timely reminder of how politicians get us to swallow their wares

The time has come to loosen our grip on reality. All the signs are there. Millennia of booze and drug abuse, hundreds of conflicting religions and cults and superstitions and alternative medicines and conspiracy theories, the premise of the Matrix franchise, the internet, sunglasses, video games and the powerfully convincing anti-intellectualism of Michael Gove. They’re all saying the same thing: ignore what’s really happening and you’ll feel a lot better. It’s been staring us in the face: we need to close our eyes to what’s staring us in the face.

And there’s been a huge breakthrough in this direction. They’re calling it the “Taste Buddy”, but that’s because they’re awful and cheesy and the less we have to perceive their existence, the happier we’ll be. And the Taste Buddy will help separate our perceptions from that sour reality. Particularly our perception of cheesiness, which we should soon be able to precisely regulate using a computer.

Couscous salad, on the culinary battlefield, is a flint-headed arrow to the cruise missile that is a fried egg sandwich

Related: Amber Rudd announces crackdown on overseas students and work visas

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October 14 2016

11:00

Charlie Brooker: ‘The more horrible an idea, the funnier I find it’

As the anthology series Black Mirror returns, its creator explains what fuels the show’s twisted tales – and tells us where we’re going wrong with technology

A sadistic version of The X Factor where contestants perform for their own freedom. An immersive experience where criminals are subjected to the same terrors they inflicted on their victims, in front of a baying audience. A grotesque cartoon demagogue using TV and social media to obtain power. No, these aren’t scenes from the first term of a Donald Trump presidency, but something only marginally less traumatising, and infinitely more likely to happen: Charlie Brooker’s techy anthology series Black Mirror, a show its creator describes as made up of “deliciously horrible ‘what if’s”.

Related: Black Mirror review – Charlie Brooker's splashy new series is still a sinister marvel

Related: Modern tribes: the Pokémon Go aficionado

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October 09 2016

09:00

Does Amber Rudd hate foreigners, or does she hate us? | David Mitchell

The home secretary’s proposal to expose companies with high numbers of foreign employees doesn’t say much for her opinion of UK workers

Home secretary Amber Rudd does not want to be called a racist. “Don’t call me a racist,” she said last week. To be fair, very few people, including the majority of racists, like being called racist. You have to be really very racist not to mind the label. Racist voters, while they often like racist policies and racist politicians, don’t, in general, like them to actually call themselves racist. They’re not comfortable with it being openly proclaimed. For now. Things haven’t got that bad.

I think maybe lots of racists don’t think they’re racist. I don’t think I’m racist, so maybe I’m racist. Maybe everyone is, to some extent. Maybe it’s a spectrum. But not thinking they’re racist is almost certainly an attribute that many non-racists and racists share. Then again, liberal guilt being what it is, some non-racists probably think they’re racist – as, obviously, do the more self-aware racists. So, whichever way you look at it, there’s loads of common ground.

I can hardly think of a more damning slur on the British workforce than this proposed policy

Related: Sofa factory boss 'disappointed' by Amber Rudd's staffing criticism

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October 04 2016

16:04
Pack Territory

October 02 2016

08:59

Fashion’s old guard are right to fear the blogger | David Mitchell

When the editors of Vogue.com hit out at the new social media generation of style commentators, they only showed their own weaknesses

Live by the sword, die by the sword. That’s what Vogue.com’s senior editors should be thinking at the moment. Ruefully, if they can do that without exacerbating wrinkles. Last week they were simply going about their business disparaging and belittling people – just a normal day at the office for those who professionally sit in judgment on what others are wearing – when they got a nasty shock.

Let me explain. Apparently it’s just been Milan fashion week. I was surprised to hear that because it seems to me it’s always London fashion week. Not literally always, but very nearly literally always. It genuinely feels like it’s absolutely always London fashion week this week, last week or next week. Is that the system? That it’s once every three weeks? If so, I suppose that leaves two thirds of the time for it to be Paris fashion week, New York fashion week, Bristol fashion week (for tidy sailors) or Milan fashion week, which is the one it was last week.

Ageing and mortality must hurt all the more if you’ve made a profession of praising novelty

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September 25 2016

08:59

Why do our spies keep telling us everything? | David Mitchell

The alarming news that MI6 plans to recruit 1,000 more staff makes me hanker for the days when they just kept things to themselves

Despite being an enthusiastic consumer of spy films and novels, I’ve never much fancied being an actual spy. Physical cowardice is part of the reason – I don’t like the sound of all the piranha tanks, gun fights, torture by sleep deprivation or polonium-laced sushi (depending on genre) – but that’s not the main deterrent. After all, popular culture makes it clear there are plenty of espionage jobs that don’t involve anything more challenging than ducking under some police tape in a cashmere overcoat. That’s the sort of spy I’d dream of being, if I dreamed of being a spy which I’m surprised to find I don’t. The suit-and-tie, office-with-a-rooftop-view, “How can we stop them realising we’ve realised that they’ve realised we realise?” kind.

Which isn’t to say I don’t want to be George Smiley: I absolutely do want to be George Smiley. I just don’t want to be any of the people he’s based on. I’d be thrilled to pretend to be a spy, with lots of people watching and applause at the end. What I’m not tempted by is the long career, wrestling with terrible secrets, mind-bending complications and soul-crushing compromises, while not being able to get credit when it went well, sympathy when it went horribly or a huge pile of money if I happened to be good at it.

Maybe this time it was a belt shampoo bomb? A mace made out of plastic cutlery embedded in a Frederick Forsyth novel?

Related: MI6 to recruit hundreds more staff in response to digital technology

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September 04 2016

08:59

I think I preferred Eton when it was still doomed | David Mitchell

The British are a nostalgic people, but there is a context for fond backward glances, and that context is progress

When I read that a group of Eton schoolboys had organised their own trip to meet President Putin and exchange portentous remarks in a big, posh Russian room, I could sense an expression crossing my face that I’m glad no one had to see. It must have been a kind of frowning, closed-eyed, open-mouthed, nauseated sneer.

I could feel my jowls attempt to detach themselves from my head. My nostrils seemed to be trying to put some distance between one another, while my eyebrows were huddling together for comfort. Of the words that escaped the weird-shaped hole my mouth had become, “oh” and “those” were the only ones this newspaper hasn’t recently resolved not to print without indisputable editorial justification.

Public schoolboys are endlessly encouraged to show this sort of vacuous initiative

Related: Don’t purge the posh, invite them to join us | Carole Cadwalladr

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August 14 2016

09:00

Who the duke cares about, in descending order | David Mitchell

Of the duke’s approximately £9bn estate, approximately £0bn goes to the taxman, and approximately £0bn to his daughters

Let’s take the sanctity of human life as read and get down to brass tacks. Who matters most? To you, that is. Who are the important ones? If you say you feel everyone’s equal, you’re lying. That’s not feasible. There are seven billion and counting. To like/love/hate/be indifferent to them all to the same extent is impossible unless you’re a supercomputer. A supercomputer that can feel.

And while you’re at it, Empathbot-Maxilove, why do those currently alive have the monopoly on mattering? What about the dead? And the not yet born? If you’re factoring in the latter, your unavoidable implication is that those currently alive who are capable of reproduction count for marginally more than those who aren’t. That’s dangerous territory and shatters the egalitarian premise that got you into this mess.

A lot of people don’t like inheritance tax. It feels like stealing from the dead

Related: Sign up to the Guardian's daily email

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