Life & Culture

Talking to Strangers: Spy trees, detox and the king’s birthday

Some of the subjects that cropped up in our columnist's week


LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 16: King Charles III speaks to Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis as he meets with faith leaders during a reception at Buckingham Palace on September 16, 2022 in London, United Kingdom. Queen Elizabeth II is lying in state at Westminster Hall until the morning of her funeral to allow members of the public to pay their last respects. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born in Bruton Street, Mayfair, London on 21 April 1926. She married Prince Philip in 1947 and acceded to the throne of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth on 6 February 1952 after the death of her Father, King George VI. Queen Elizabeth II died at Balmoral Castle in Scotland on September 8, 2022, and is succeeded by her eldest son, King Charles III. (Photo by Aaron Chown - WPA Pool / Getty Images)

Sunday lunch. Demartinos, Great Portland Street

I turn to the two men at the next table.

“I’ve been studying you two. You’re the father — and this is your son. Am I right?” I say to the 60-something man sitting opposite a young man in his mid-20s.

“How can you tell?” the older man asks.

“I’m about to publish a paper on my research. It concludes that children are hereditary. In every case I’ve looked at, children are younger than their parents.”

“That’s amazing”, the father says. “You must be a geneticist.”

The news headlines scream that we’ve got high inflation, food insecurity, a possible global recession and the impending end of the world through climate change to look forward to.

So if ever there was a time to detox from the internet it’s got to be now. It’s time to lock my iPhone in a drawer; only I haven’t got a drawer. Whatever happened to drawers? We’re living in a world of shelves.

Sunday evening . Dinner at the Red Pepper with Dr Chris

“Want to hear my favourite news story of the week? Apparently trees are talking to each other— under the ground. They’re not talking behind our backs but underneath our feet!
It’s the woodwideweb.

“But Chris, the really big question is — who are the trees spying for? China? Russia? Iran?

“And if people are being driven to the edge — what about the octopuses? The University of Sydney says they are getting so mad they’re now chucking things at each other.”

“Let’s get the bill,” Chris says.

Monday breakfast

“It’s King Charles’s birthday today, did you know that?” I ask Xerxes the cat.

We’re both still in awe at the remarkable sangfroid the King displayed when those eggs were thrown at him last week. No panic, no hand fluttering, no throwing himself to the ground, he just carried on.

“That’s a real king for you, Xerxes.”

“Thank God they were only eggs”, he says.

Regular readers will remember that in 1981 I sent HRH a lavatory for his birthday: He collects them. It’s good to know he’s now on the throne.

Tuesday morning

In Ohio two men have been accused of cheating in a fishing tournament. Prosecutors say they stuffed the winning fish with lead weights.

Last week it was the young American chess champion who was accused of cheating by putting something that wiggles the next move up his you-know-where, when signalled by an accomplice.

Tuesday afternoon

I have an idea!

I email Lily, my Scottish Jewish Chinese Canadian daughter, now living in Brooklyn. “How about starting the SJCC Network of NY? It could be the next BIG thing!”

You can’t turn round in a deli there without bumping into a young Chinese Jewish woman. So many American Jewish men are marrying Chinese women, in no time all the Scottish Jewish Canadians will be clamouring to join.

Wednesday morning

Is “poo” in the OED?

It should be, as it’s the word of 2022.

Poo is everywhere — not just under your feet in the street. The BBC even has a poo-podcast. Whatever happened to good old “defecation”? As the 60s song asked, “Where have all the faeces gone?” There’s clearly been a poo coup.

Thursday morning

At breakfast with an old client, I ask after his wife.

“How’s Cleo?”

“Oh the dog’s fine, thank you”, he says.

This reminds me of when in the late 1980s I had a breakfast meeting with a New York pet food distributor called Robert.

Chatting over the scrambled eggs I asked him what his wife did.

“She’s a singer.”

“Has she had any success?”

“A little”, he said.

“Would I know her work?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he said.

“What’s her name?”

“Diana Ross.”

Thursday afternoon

To Vision Express for an eye test. Yasmine hands me the chart. “Can you read any of the lines?”

I read the top three lines.

“Wow — this is exciting! What happened next?” I ask.


I still haven’t heard back from Lily.

Saturday Lunchtime . Marylebone High Street

I’m on a zebra crossing, walking next to two very tall people. A 60-something man and a young woman in her mid-20s.

“You must be from Holland,” I say.

“How do you know?” asks the man.

“You are the tallest people in the world," I say.

“But let’s not forget the Watusis — the Tutsis of Rwanda — they are also as tall,” the young woman says.

“What do you do?” I ask.

“I’m a geneticist,”she says.

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