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22 March 2023updated 12 Oct 2023 11:20am

An audience with the King, London’s pest problem, and why the English are afraid of the Scots

There was a hoopla in Colchester for the royal visit, with small children waving flags and a brass band.

By Rosie Millard

There was a hoopla in Colchester for the arrival of Charles III to acknowledge its new city status. Hence bunting, small children waving flags, soldiers in full dress uniform, the local MPs Will Quince and Priti Patel, a cellist, a brass band and sundry types in knickerbockers and frills. Three charities had been chosen to meet the King, including Colchester’s award-winning contemporary art space, Firstsite, where I am the chair.

Contemporary art! In a radically modernist building! Has the King had an Emin-style conversion? Er, no. Our trump card is a programme wherein we serve free hot dinners to local children and young people in the holidays and on weekends. It’s been a huge hit, and the King wants to know about it. Actually, everyone now wants to come to Firstsite and check out the art. Other contemporary art galleries want to follow suit. Even Arts Council England thinks it’s a good idea.

The real value of art

Maybe the benighted English National Opera (ENO) ought to try it, in order to curry favour with the council, which will announce whether the ENO will be funded until 2026 or not. Frankly, in terms of public engagement, the opera company is not doing too badly. They’ve had a cracking season so far, with sell-out shows; I went to Songs of Discovery, a project from ENO Engage, the company’s learning and participation wing, where it teaches singing to newly arrived migrants, to help them with their English.

The concert took place at Church House next door to Westminster School. We walked in through Dean’s Yard, past some of the country’s most privileged young people, to hear an enthusiastic, raucous and inspiring concert from some of the country’s most challenged. Is this a good use of public money? I think it is.

[See also: AI can only do hollow, hotel lobby art]

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The rat trap

There’s a job vacancy in the House of Commons for a £33,000-37,520 pa Pest Ops Manager. It seems that like Paris, London is awash with rodents, from the Palace of Westminster to our house. This week the Mouse Man arrived chez nous, putting down 12 traps in the kitchen and four rat traps in the garden. The first are small, the second huge, but there is more. Mice, it appears, are ensnared by curiosity. There is no bait, but a small doorway. Intrigued, the mouse ventures inside, the door slams shut and noxious gas fills the trap: Hunca Munca is dead meat. However, outside in Rat World, the temptation is merely the scent of crumbly cakes laced with something nasty. The rat comes back for more and more, until the inevitable.

My saviour’s patch of London, namely Islington, Clerkenwell and Farringdon, is Dickensian and thus very busy. Yet I learn that as with the housing market, there is a strict hierarchy of scale. Mice in Angel are very small and sweet, whereas in St Paul’s they are huge. Meanwhile in King’s Cross? “They have giant rats there,” he tells me. “Big as loaves of bread.”

All joking aside

To the Dorchester for a ritzy dinner, hosted by the headhunters Odgers Berndtson, where the guest speaker is the chair of NHS England, Richard Meddings. He kicked off by giving us his favourite joke: “‘Doctor, doctor, I feel like a strawberry.’” The response? ‘Don’t worry, I have a cream for that!’” Mr Meddings is also a non-executive director at Credit Suisse. Perhaps, what with the junior doctors and the bank both in the news – and not in a good way – he might be relying on Bob Monkhouse’s Joke Encyclopaedia to keep up his spirits.

Hugh Grant’s missing charm

Is Hugh Grant rude, or just British? asks the American media after his churlish behaviour on the Oscars red carpet. I think the latter masks the former. I once interviewed him at a premiere of a film in which he was starring – a production he was contractually bound (and paid) to promote. I introduce myself, explain I am from BBC News, politely proffer him the microphone and invite him to say something witty. “Is this what you got your degree for?” snarls Grant. Quite the charmer.

A hidden danger

My Scottish husband flies to Edinburgh to see Scotland play rugby at Murrayfield. Naturally, he will be in national dress. The mass singing of “Flower of Scotland” demands it. But there’s a problem. “I’m afraid there is something unusual and metallic in your case, sir. We’ll have to unpack the lot,” says the security official at City Airport. It transpires it is the buckles on his kilt. I have always thought the English were secretly afraid of the Scots. This is proof positive.

[See also: Why can’t the UK get over its hatred of London]

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This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink