Is all male sexuality toxic?

IS IT appropriate for a man to offer an opinion on the fall-out from the Harvey Weinstein affair? This has for a while been troubling this average guy in the stalls, so here goes.

As we now know, the plug on the Hollywood swamp was pulled by actress Rose McGowan, and the draining of the scuzzy waters revealed the unappealing contours of film producer Harvey Weinstein, a man accused of sexual assaults in all shades of seriousness.

McGowan alleges that Weinstein raped her, and her accusation began an outpouring from other women in Hollywood, with more than 80 such victims eventually coming forward to accuse Weinstein.

That astonishing tidal wave of accusers put new buoyancy in the #MeToo movement that aims to encourage women who had been sexually abused to speak up through social media.

The positive side to this campaign is that abuse is talked about; and raising the matter so prominently on social media might change attitudes enough to stop men playing power games by sexually abusing women.

It is possible to worry, though, that a movement can become all-encompassing. And what lies behind this revelation of abuse by one man, and the raising of abuses by other men, is the assumption that all men are abusive.

Maybe too many men are abusive; maybe so many men have abused women in the past that there is no longer any ‘free pass’ for the ordinary, non-abusing male; or maybe the ordinary non-abusing male offends in other ways with inappropriate glances or thoughts and is therefore a culprit without exactly understanding the nature of his offence.

But here’s what troubles me: the sweeping assumption that all male sexuality is toxic – as if male sexuality is by its nature toxic, as if it cannot exist without that toxicity. Is this a healthy way to regard men and their sexuality?

Abuse is about power, and the problem is not only that some successful men use and abuse their power – it is also to do with the sort of men who rise to the top.

The most famous/infamous man in the world right now is a self-proclaimed sexual braggart, a vainglorious and perpetually ranting egotist who has boasted of “grabbing women by the pussy” and is alleged to have had his lawyers buy the silence of a porn star he reportedly had an affair with (Stormy Daniels is the unlikely name of the woman in question).

Dorothy Parker, that most quotable of writers, has a great slant on wealth, quipping: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”

That wry barb works almost as well with ‘power’ instead of ‘money’. God or someone (or his tycoon father) gave Donald Trump great wealth and power, and he has spent a lifetime abusing those gifts.

Men such as Trump and Weinstein are abhorrent to many women (although millions of women voted for the misogynistic Trump); but they are abhorrent to plenty of men, too. Part of me wants to shout out that these vile men don’t represent me, but another part of me worries that saying anything will be problematic and wrong, just another man going on about things when he should have kept his mouth shut.

Women often say that their path to the top is blocked by men; and while this is no doubt true, many men would say that their path to success had been blocked by the wrong sort of men, the macho types who bully their way to the top.

Trump and Weinstein and other male barbarians are the worst of men but dumping us all in that swamp along with them isn’t reasonable; is it?

Anyway, those are the thoughts of this average guy in the stalls.


Isn’t McMafia is bit of a McMuddle?

McMafiaIS it just me, or is McMafia (BBC1, Sunday) a bit of a McMuddle?

At first that title caused a misunderstanding: was this going to be a Scottish crime drama of some sort? Ah, no. The ‘Mc’ is from McDonald’s and is intended to suggest the way in which Russian gangsters franchise out their operations.

The drama series is based on Misha Glenny’s factual account of how the break-up of the Soviet bloc led to global pillage (capitalism’s brutal cousin). I haven’t read the book, so cannot comment on where this drama began; but where it’s ended up is a different manner.

Now I have tried to be thrilled by McMafia, but the trouble is that it’s just not very thrilling. Whisper it quietly, but it’s oddly dull. It’s taken all those episodes to admit as much. At first, I was swept up in the hype that this was going to be The Night Manager all over again. But it isn’t at all.

The Night Manager was based on a John le Carré novel and so came supplied with a dramatic structure and a plot that sort of made sense. McMafia does attempt a similar global sweep, and even as late as last Sunday, I found myself saying out loud: “I quite like the way this moves all over the place.”

But an inner heckler – front row on the sofa, Sunday night glass of wine needing a refill – was grumbling away…

“But it’s so boring, nothing seems to make sense, and James Norton looks like he’s just back from the dentist with a frozen mouth. In fact, they all look like they’re just back from the dentist with a frozen mouth. The whole drama seems to be immobile. It does try with the action, but mostly everything passes in a sterile blur

“Oh, look are we in Mumbai again? What are we doing here? Oh, look, it’s back to James Norton’s fund manager staring at figures on the screen. Dodgy figures, dodgy money and, ahem, dodgy drama, as figures on a screen don’t exactly excite.

“You know, Norton was good as that sexually compromised crime-solving vicar Sidney in Granchester, and he was amazing as the Tommy Lee Royce, the unsavoury baddie in Happy Valley. And he was top-notch in War And Peace, too.

“But this, dear me. He doesn’t look very happy in this toothache role. And that girlfriend of his (Juliet Rylance). Well, she’s spent five episodes smiling and simpering while being an ethical sort of high-flying banker – I know, hard to believe, but this is a drama, so we’ll grant them that one – without clocking until episode five that her man is behaving oddly.

“Isn’t that just, well, unbelievably dim of her?

“The Russians are OK, and the dad has something about him, although he does seem to have recovered quickly from throwing himself out of the window and into his girlfriend’s bed; or did that happen the other way around?

“Oh, look, we’re in the desert again and bearded men who may be bad Israelis or bad Arabs or bad Indians are passing drug sausages through a wire fence again. Oh, and now it’s back to the guy with the menacing goatee, the politest baddie in the world. Goatee man is played by David Strathairn who is, for my hijacked licence fee, the best thing about McMafia.

“Oh, what’s going on now; and is it too late for another glass?”

As this is Saturday morning, rather than Sunday evening, that’s a metaphorical glass, and I’m guessing it’ll be half-full, and anyway I am off to McWork.

Whatever that inner heckler says, I’ll probably watch to the end now, but McMafia is proving a disappointment.


Customer Theresa at the shop of tatty ideas…

Let’s wind the state’s tatty alarm clock back. Theresa May is in the Commons at PMQs after the collapse of Carillion. Does she confess to the crime and say: “It was privatisation wot done it”?

Don’t be silly. What she said was that it wasn’t her fault because the government was a “customer” of Carillion. Perhaps she remembered hearing that the customer was always right, and this felt like the perfect get-out clause.

If the customer is always right, then I must always be right, too.

Politics is a brazen art, of course, but Mrs Maybe is shameless in her ability to spout arrant nonsense. The team of Tory monkeys in the excuses-making team did double-time on that one. Those are the same mendacious monkeys, by the way, who spin out NHS statistics for the health secretary.

The collapse of a private company working for so much of the public state was always going to be a tough one for the party that believes in privatisation.

At this point it is time to call on a phrase that it is almost obligatory for critics of the way privatisation works; it goes like this: “privatising the profits and socialising the losses”.

What this means is that private companies reap the profits when they are handed state assets to run; until everything goes wrong, at which point the state carries the can. It is an odd sort of free market that stuffs its pockets with our money – and then expects us to foot the bill when it all goes tits up, to dip into the economists’ lexicon.

The dramatic collapse of Carillion shows the weakness of the whole process, especially as the state kept bunging new deals at the company, even as profit warnings were being issued.

This is happy territory for Jeremy Corbyn, never a fan of privatisation. Watching it all go wrong is a sort of political wet dream for the Labour leader.

In an interview with the Guardian this morning, he says: “We will rewrite the rules to give the public back control of their services.” He talks about “companies like Carillion creaming off the profits” and pledges to end this “outsourcing racket”.

While it is easy to agree with such sentiments, you sense a gap here between the trusty old ideology – privatisation bad – and the day-to-day realities of government. Private finance initiatives, or PFIs, were dreamed up under John Major as a way of hiding state spending. New Labour grasped this Tory idea and made it very much their own, partly, in fairness, because the state had grown so moth-eaten following years of neglect.

As chancellor, Gordon Brown made a virtue of sticking to Tory spending plans for two years – and saw PFIs as the way out of a problem; and they’ve been costing us a packet ever since.

The problem for Labour is that private companies have been doing the state’s business for so long now, that the old infrastructure is no longer there. A Corbyn government would still end up having to strike deals with private industry.

I started with a crime scene, as it were, and here to end is another. The government’s own forensic regulator, Gillian Tully, says today that the failure of police forces to meet the official standards for forensic science make miscarriages of justice inevitable.

Outsourcing again – with Tully saying that some unaccredited labs are not subject to independent oversight.

And how did we arrive at this calamity? The government abolished the Forensic Science Service in 2012 because Tory ministers wanted to create a free market in forensics.

A case for CSI (criminally stupid ideas).

Ah, now I understand Brexit… it was all just an illusion…

IF you want to understand Brexit, read an Irish newspaper. I don’t just say this because of working on one for two days a week, although I have put in the Brexit acreage.

Sometimes it seems that I have swallowed more words about Brexit than the Irish have pints of Guinness, but never mind. The opinion piece in question appears in a rival publication, The Irish Times.

A Facebook friend pointed me towards the article by Nicholas Boyle, Emeritus Schroder Professor of German at the University of Cambridge.

Prof Boyle’s main point is encapsulated in the headline, “Brexit is a collective English mental breakdown” – backed up by a smaller heading, which reads: “English people living on dreams of empire never learned to see others as equals.”

An interesting point is made in the first paragraph. Here, Prof Boyle points out in that in the White Paper of February 2 last year, introducing the process for quitting the European Union, the government made “an astonishingly frank admission”. This is contained in the sentence: “Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign through out membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that.”

He elaborates his point by saying that it was false for the Leave campaigners to insist we had to “take back control” of UK laws, “since control had never been lost; and the campaign was based, not on fact, but on what it ‘felt like’ – on illusion, therefore, and emotion.”

If the scales didn’t exactly fall from my eyes, something did suddenly make sense. The push for Brexit, on the part of the Leave lobby, was all about emotion and illusion. And emotion and illusion are easy to inflate with the rusty old bicycle pump of patriotism; oh, what wordy fun Boris and the others had puffing themselves up with what it ‘felt like’ to be an Englishman abroad in the hostile lands of Europe.

And it is an English attitude, according to Prof Boyle’s thesis, as Scotland and Northern Ireland voted for Remain.

Leavers painted the EU as a threat to our country – or as an enemy who had already made off with our country. Somehow, they believed that by voting No to the EU, they would be “getting their country back” – even though that country hadn’t been lost in the first place.

I don’t wish to recite all of Prof Boyle’s argument, as this is after all my ledge and not his. But it is worth repeating his view that older Leave voters were in some way compensating for the loss of Empire, or for the feelings that loss had created.

Here’s a final word from Prof Boyle: “That is the terrifying truth that membership of the EU presents to the English and from which for centuries the empire insulated them: that they have to live in the world on an equal footing with other people.”

If Brexit was, in strong part, based on illusion and emotion, that helps to explain why everything now seems such a slog. The emotion was the easy part; the illusion was seductive because it said something about what it felt like to be English in an alien modern world.

But illusion and emotion aren’t much use when it comes to striking hard deals with the other members of the club you have just decided to leave. And not just leave, but leave in a giant huff as if it was all their fault for making you hold the referendum in the first place. Well, it was in truth David Cameron’s fault, but that’s an argument for another day.


A short love letter to print and the new Guardian…


I LIKED the mini-me version of The Guardian and borrowed a library copy to show my Monday morning students. It’s fair to say they weren’t impressed.

This was dispiriting to an old man of print. The paper’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, has done a great job in relaunching her newspaper. It looks familiar and modern at the same time, and much crisper than the broadsheet. Neat lines and some beautifully designed features/comments pages; what’s not to like?

Everything, if you’re the wrong age. The problem doesn’t lie with what Viner and her team have done: it’s just that young people aren’t interested in newspapers – even those who study journalism.

They keep up with the news on their phones or rely on Twitter, or pop over to the BBC website. They can still express opinions well. In an exercise on iPhone filming yesterday, they rose to the challenge of Trump insisting that he isn’t a racist with sharply put views to the contrary.

But the new edition of The Guardian only produced a shrug. They just weren’t that into it: not down to how it looked, but because it was only a newspaper – virtually a museum exhibit.

Printed words on rustling paper are still the best to some of us, a hardy band of inky-fingered readers who like to hold something in their hands. Maybe we’re a dying breed and print will expire with us. Then again, print has had its obituary written many times, and still staggers on.

Habits do change, even for those of us with worn-out typewriter ribbons for souls. My print consumption is as follows: The Guardian on a Saturday and The Observer on a Sunday, with occasional copies of the Yorkshire Post at the weekend, too. The rest of the time, I go digital and wear out my eyes a little bit more; and probably the ribbon on that typewriter soul, too.

The other nationals had fun with The Guardian’s new look yesterday. The Daily Telegraph stood on its brogue-clad toes to look down on the shrunken rival, beneath a blurb written across a tablet of blue stone, saying: “Britain’s biggest & best quality paper”, with “size does matter” tucked away in brackets.

The Sun offered a playground shove for a welcome, snarking that its up-market rival cost £1.50 more. A barbed little leader said: “From one tabloid to another, here is our suggestion for them to turn around their failing fortunes: actually report some exclusive, rip-roaring stories… We know that is an alien concept to them, but it might help them flog a copy, or two.”

A matter of taste, but I’d say The Guardian contains acres more journalism every day than The Sun.

It’s easy to admire the work that goes into producing The Sun or the Daily Mirror – but, somehow, not so easy to read them, or not for me. Everything is too short and bitty, even though my attention span is short and bitty too, worn away by messing around on my mobile when I should be reading a newspaper.

But I do like The Guardian’s new look and, you know, it might even tempt me to drink more often from the inkwell.

Not so plastic fantastic… and Farage’s Norma Desmond moment…

Time to call again on the Chartered Institute of Well You Don’t Say, to consider the Tories kicking the environment into the long grass while bragging about how green they are. And Nigel Farage coming over all Norma Desmond about a second Brexit referendum…

Putting on, figuratively at least, her green wellies, Theresa May made a less than plastic fantastic speech on the environment yesterday.

Let’s give her half a cheer – hi-hip-but-no-hooray.

Yes, it is good to hear a prime minister talking about the environment. And she is right to raise the plastic horrors clogging up seas and choking wildlife.

But what was proposed yesterday? Ahem, extending the 5p plastic bags charge to small shops in England – something that already happens in Scotland and Wales.

What she gave us isn’t a plan; a plan has something written down in hard words; a political plan would introduce measures that can be voted on in Parliament and have legal backing; this is a passing promise, not a plan; vague aspirations rather than anything concrete.

She polished up her green credentials without doing much else. The legislation to ban microbeads is welcome, but we knew about that already. The so-called northern forest along the M62 corridor sounds like a gimmick, especially when set against ancient forests being sacrificed to the rails of HS2. And planting trees with one hand while fracking with the other suggests she suffers from a split personality.

Talking about the environment is a good start; joined-up green thinking is what’s needed now, rather than wishing on a falling oak leaf.

And now let’s turn to Nigel Farage, always a dispiriting task, I find. Speaking on Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff – a show I have never seen – Nigel yesterday said he was changing his mind on a second referendum. He now believed a second vote would settle the matter for good, saying: “What is certain is that the Cleggs, the Blairs, the Adonises will never, ever, ever give up. They will go on whinging and whining and moaning all the way through this process.”

Takes one to know one, Nigel. You rode the anti-Europe surf for years and years, never for once shutting up.

It is hard not to detect a longing for lost limelight in this sudden enthusiasm for a second referendum. Like Norma Desmond, the faded silent film star portrayed by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Farage lives in a fantasy world where he dreams of making a triumphant return to the political screen.

And as Norma said: “I’m going to be bigger than peanut butter!”

In Nigel Desmond’s case, that’s the horrid smooth stuff that clogs the mouth up; your mouth rather than his, sadly.

Who you gonna support: Virgin or the Daily Mail?

THERE’S a spat between Virgin Trains and the Daily Mail; do you take sides or hurry on, leaving them to their ‘ferrets in a sack’ moment?

The train company has stopped selling the newspaper on its services as it is “not compatible” with its brand or beliefs. According to a leaked memo, Virgin Trains said its employees had raised concerns “about the Mail’s editorial position on issues such as immigration, LGBT rights and unemployment”.

Before stepping further along this malodorous platform, it is worth taking on board the knowledge that Virgin Trains runs the West Coast mainline in a joint venture with Stagecoach. This is a different joint venture to Virgin Trains East Coast, which is also a collaboration with Stagecoach.

Knowledge of that complication will come in handy in a moment.

Here’s the problem: if you dislike the Mail but don’t exactly love Virgin, who gets your sympathies here?

This ban is just a pious virtue-signal from Virgin, a spot of student-style politics – and we’ll arrive at that noisy station soon – from a massive capitalist corporation trying to pretend it still has ‘alternative’ values.

Sir Richard Branson is the face of the many offshoots that carry his name, and the ghost of his hippie past still hangs around him, all these monied years later, like the whiff of a half-remembered joss-stick.

It is customary at such moments for the Daily Mail top bananas to fulminate about free speech – even though the Mail only ever allows views that fit its political template. The only sort of free speech in that newspaper is the sort that sticks rigidly to the Mail’s preordained view of the world.

Having said that, there is some truth in a spokesperson for the newspaper telling the Guardian that it was “disgraceful” that this ban should come at a time of ever-rising rail fares and “after the taxpayer was forced to bail out Virgin’s East Coast mainline franchise”.

True, but here lies a further knotted irony.

The government is in effect bailing out Virgin and Stagecoach by letting them quit the franchise early, at a possible cost to taxpayers of billions – and this suggests strongly that the capitalism the Mail proudly supports cannot run railways without help from the nannying old state.

So, in effect, Virgin and the Mail are on the same side of the fence, while also pretending to have their differences. If the Mail was really against rail privatisation, it would join Jeremy Corbyn’s call for the railways to be handed back to the state; and that is never going to happen.

This Virgin-Mail affair is another of those stories about nothing much that occupy so much time nowadays. You may have heard about Toby Young stepping down from his position on the government’s new Office for Students board, after the discovery of old tweets in which he said assorted vile things.

I don’t have the time or inclination to think too long about this unappealing self-styled provocateur (a man of the right in the mould of columnist politicians such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove).

But what is this body that Young will now no longer join? Its role in part lies in keeping an eye on student politics, and no-platforming in particular – a matter that much obsesses middle-aged journalists on the Mail, Telegraph and the Sun, among over-heated others.

A government body set up, in other words, to satisfy the very newspapers that helped to spin this matter out of all proportion in the first place.

No-platforming – preventing those with unfashionable views from speaking on campuses – is certainly unattractive; but it’s hardly such a massive problem that the government needs to waste money on setting up a quango of middle-aged snoopers.

Just leave the students to their politics; they’ll grow out of it soon enough.

But back to train-spotting: as Virgin only owns 10% of the East Coast franchise, how comes its name is splashed over 100% of everything?

Mrs Maybe’s card trick goes horribly awry…

Theresa May looked at the cards in her hand. She’d practised a few times in front of the bedroom mirror. They all thought she was a dull sort, but she’d show them what a card-sharp she was.

She took a drag on her imaginary cheroot and waited until the pretend smoke disappeared from the green baize dealing table. She’d been online and watched a video on how to “shuffle like a pro”.

Well, she was going to reshuffle like a pro.

But it didn’t get off to the best of starts. Quite a few cards fell from her fingers. And when she flourished her best cards, the crowd in the saloon mostly shrugged and carried on not paying attention.

Events had spiked that pack, that was the trouble.

The ‘joker’ was never going to move. That was her name for Boris, even though she found him as funny as toothache. She couldn’t move any of the big names: Philip, Amber or that Brexit double act, David and Liam. What had she even seen in that pair? For the life of her she couldn’t remember.

Theresa put that shameful question from her mind as she concentrated on the Jeremy Hunt two-card trick. She dealt her cards well, just as she’d practised, but Hunt spoilt everything by refusing to take the new ‘trick’ of business secretary.

He’d walked into her saloon with one job title and left with two: health secretary and social care secretary. Maybe she was cleverer than they all thought – no one had a clue what to do about social care, so Hunt might as well mess that brief up as well.

The pianist in the corner slowed the beat as Mrs Maybe prepared for one was sure she could pull off. Reshuffle Justine Greening from Education to the Department for Work and Pensions. That little woman would never put up a fight.

Theresa fanned the pack and pulled out the right two cards, but Justine stood her ground and got into a furious strop. She wasn’t going anywhere. Justine quit, leaving Theresa to pull off a new trick when she wasn’t even that good at the old ones.

By the end of the afternoon, Theresa said to herself (and anyone who was listening): “That went well.” As she stood to leave the dealing table, she ignored all the cards at her feet. Some were torn in half, others had bent corners.

The next morning at breakfast, she was nibbling a piece of toast while Philip read the newspapers. “What are the reviews like, Philip?” she asked.

Philip hid the Daily Telegraph behind the toast-rack, as he knew that the front-page headline “Night of the blunt stiletto” wouldn’t do much for her mood. He slid the marmalade pot on the front page of the Daily Mail – “No, Prime Minister!”. He’d tried saying no to his wife; never got you anywhere: it was a surprise how stubborn life in that vicarage had made her.

He put the butter dish over The Times – “Greening quits in shambolic reshuffle” and dropped the Financial Times – “accident-strewn” – on the floor.

“Splendid,” he said. “They all like your reshuffle card trick very much.”

He glanced at Twitter and saw that Ruth Davidson had just tweeted… “Sorry to see @JustineGreening leave government – she brought her non-nonsense, northern accountant’s eye to every brief and is a real role model for LGBT+ Conservatives.”

He turned his phone off.

“Yes, it’s all gone splendidly, dear.”

Gender-biased art? Oh, it’s all they were talking about in the pub…

Government accused of ‘institutional’ gender bias in art acquisitions – headline in yesterday’s Guardian

Oh, we nipped to our local last night and that’s all anyone was talking about.

Wall to wall chat about gender bias in art acquisitions. That pub has acquired a few pieces of its own, mostly a random selection of non-valuable domestic antiques placed on a high shelf in the front room. A shoe last, old tins – that sort of thing.

Sometimes you read a newspaper story and think, “That’s interesting/outrageous/bloody typical…” And sometimes you read a story and think, “Oh, really?”

This one hit the “Oh, really?” snare-drum for me.

According to research by Labour, three-quarters of works acquired in recent years were by men. These are works bought or donated to be displayed in government buildings around the world. The shadow culture team calculates that 265 works by men and only 80 by women were collected over the five years from 2011-12 to 2015-16.

This one calls for the intervention of that important public body I invented the other day, the Chartered Institute of Well You Don’t Say. A spokesman for the institute said: “This is all very well, but perhaps the Labour Party should look to its own gender bias. While the Tories have managed two female leaders, Labour has produced precisely none.”

That spokesman is right, of course. Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May – or Mrs Hacksaw and Mrs Maybe, to give them their proper names – might not be to all tastes, but at least they were trusted with leading their party and country. Two-nil to the Conservatives on that one.

For what it’s worth, my money would be on Emily Thornberry, who seems smart, combative and up for a scrap.

But back for that gender-biased art collection. Kevin Brennan, the shadow arts minister, said: “Female artists are at least as talented as their male counterparts and the government should be setting an example by getting rid of the institutionalised bias in their acquisitions.”

A good point – up to a point. Happy to agree with every word of that, but surely there are more important things to worry about, greater gender battles to be fought. A government culture talking head contacted by the Guardian said: “The government art collection is a strong supporter of women artists…blah, blah, blah.”

You know, just the sort of slippery thing spokesmen-and-women are always saying: “Yes, we may not have a leg to stand on, but we are perfectly capable of walking on our hands.”

“Labour says 70% of recent purchases by male artists,” according to a sub-heading on yesterday’s story. Well, yes – “And nought per cent of Labour leaders have ever been women” replied the sub-heading in my head.

The spokesman for the Chartered Institute of Well You Don’t Say would like to have a final word: “Perhaps the Labour Party should spend a bit more time trying to come up with a policy on Brexit, rather than standing back and letting the Tories make a mess of it. What exactly is Labour’s policy on Brexit? Heaven only knows. Sitting there with a self-satisfied and yet gnomic smirk while the Tories tear chunks out of each other doesn’t really cut the mustard as a policy, does it?”

And here is a closing thought. Should any women artists have wandered on to this ledge, you really do have my support. It’s just that the Labour Party should be fighting more important gender battles than this one. And that Brexit canvas really has nothing on it but a scribble or two.

Bracing stuff, marmalade…

DH Lawrence and marmalade; who knew? Here is the Nottinghamshire novelist on the sweet orangey stuff: “I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred orange and scrub the floor.”

Marmalade on buttered toast is one of the joys of life. But young people aren’t so keen, reportedly; and what with everyone turning ‘bread phobic’ these days, marmalade could well be toast rather than spread upon it.

Yet nothing is better as a treat, eaten on days when porridge is spurned in favour of something bracingly unhealthy. And it is bracing stuff, marmalade: sweet and tart all at once, a treat and an admonishment in one sitting.

Marmalade runs in our family, on my mother’s side at least. We were over there this week to take down the Christmas tree. The boxes containing the decorations have our daughter’s name on the side as my mother is leaving that glittery haul to her. A lovely tattered robin ornament in that box once belonged to her mother, Doris; a third-generation tree trinket.

I did wonder if my mother might leave me her bottomless stock of marmalade. The cupboard in the top bedroom is filled with jars. Or it always used to be, but this time that cupboard was bare. This is as much of a shock as discovering that the final raven has just hopped away from the Tower of London.

Anyway, she has pledged to make a double batch this year. Even at 85 and after a recent hip replacement, nothing will stop her making that marmalade.

But what exactly is marmalade? A daft question but sometimes it is good to ask those. My mother had a friend called Charles Sinclair who died some years ago. He wrote a book called the Dictionary of Food and I have just pull my copy from the shelf.

The relevant entry reads: “A jam made from citrus fruit, especially Seville oranges, by boiling the juice with water, shredded peel and a muslin bag containing all the tipis, pith and excess peel for several hours to extract pectin. The muslin bag is removed, sugar added and the whole boiled for a short time until it reaches setting point.”

A laborious amount of shredding is involved, although my mother gets around this by using a pressure cooker and a food processor. No shreds, but the marmalade still tastes good.

But how did we arrive at this delicious breakfast spread? According to a marmalade season feature in the Daily Telegraph some years ago, the story goes like this. In 1700, a storm-damaged Spanish ship carrying Seville oranges sought refuge in Dundee harbour, and the “cargo was sold off cheaply to James Keiller, a down-on-his-luck local merchant, whose wife turned it into a preserve”.

What a happy accident. Whether something similar happened with the invention of IRN BRU, the Scottish soft drink, is not known. But I did hear a rumour that a tanker containing Donald Trump’s hair dye crashed into a sugar lorry and the two substances combined to devastating effect.

There is a fuss right now about Barrs cutting 50 per cent of the sugar from IRN BRU. Petitions have been got up – “Hands off our IRN BRU!” – although it is fair to say that a petition is launched about something or other every hour of the day.

But back to marmalade. Everyone should eat it, but don’t mess with that marmalade. Lately I have endured two experimental marmalades. One jar contained mincemeat and the result was an abomination. The other was a Frank Cooper experiment, marmalade made with Muscovado sugar. I can see where Frank’s coming from, but marmalade should just taste of marmalade, not the darkest of dark sugar.