Buckingham Palace has a terrible sense of timing. As the latest figures show unemployment reaching the highest level for 17 years, one group of plucky Brits can look forward to a spot of sun and fun in 2012, and, even better, they won't have to pay: the hard-up British taxpayer will. Lavish plans to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee were unveiled last week, just as the number of women out of work passed a million, just slightly more than the number of jobless young people. Given that Great Britain plc is staring at the very real possibility of a double-dip recession, and personal debt is higher than ever, you might think the bureaucrats who organise events for the Royal Family would have some sense of appropriateness, of adapting to straitened times. Sadly, not.
The Queen has done a remarkable job, by any standards. I am not a monarchist, but she exhibits many characteristics that I admire: tact, discretion and dedication to the job. Some might say these qualities are lacking in many of her ill-educated, lazy, foul-mouthed subjects. The Queen has remained a constant in our lives as fashions, prime ministers and reality show stars come and go. For an 86-year-old, she shows extraordinary stamina, undertaking successful trips this year to Australia and Ireland, with a schedule most rock groups would find tough. Next year she plans to celebrate her 60-year reign by travelling the UK – while dispatching a bunch of lesser royals to far-flung parts of what remains of the Commonwealth.
Prince Harry gets the best winter sun itinerary – going to Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas in March, when the weather will be just peachy. Prince William and Kate fly to idyllic Tuvalu, a remote group of islands in the South Pacific, which has only 10,400 inhabitants. I shudder to think what that jaunt is costing us per spectator. They drop in on Malaysia, Singapore and the Solomon Islands. The jammiest freebie – stopping off at some of the loveliest spots in the Caribbean, from St Kitts and Nevis, Antigua, St Lucia, to Trinidad and Tobago – has dropped in the laps of the royal couple who seem to have adopted a very low profile in recent years: Sophie and Edward. She is a former PR, who fell for a newspaper set-up with the "Fake Sheikh" and looked gauche. He's a lacklustre one-time telly producer who wound up his production company after limping along making films about ... the royals. What have they done for Britain since, apart from breeding? Prince Charles and Camilla will drop in on Australia and Canada.
I have three issues – apart from the massive cost – with sending royals around the globe. First, some of these emissaries are not great ambassadors for our country, which regularly produces highly creative, talented, quirky inventors, musicians, scientists, artists and creative geniuses. Why not send James Dyson or Dame Judi Dench or Tinie Tempah? Why send an under-educated bloke in a formal suit accompanied by a lady in a posh hat before whom people bow and scrape just because of the blood in his veins, rather than for what he has done?
Second, the Commonwealth is made up of countries we occupied and then patronised a long time ago. Our relationship with them should move with the times. Each destination has other, more pressing alliances and partnerships, for economic, religious or geographical reasons. Why does Tuvalu or Mozambique, Uganda or Trinidad need a royal visit? In some places, connections with the UK are tenuous or unpopular at best. These unnecessary visits will reinforce antiquated protocol, and might be used by unpopular and corrupt politicians to cling to power.
The royal trips will not repay their costs by delivering trade deals, and will be a costly PR stunt with hard-to-measure returns. Finally, the place for our Royal Family in a recession is here in the UK. When the Blitz hit London, the Royal Family visited the bombed streets. They didn't plan a trip to Timbuktu.
As for the newlyweds, the Duchess of Cambridge is starting to look eerily like a star from one of our up-market reality shows, with her ever-lustrous bouncing mane of hair and vacant expression, photographed at pop concerts and charity balls in tiny dresses that showcase her stunning figure. She has said and done nothing of note. The Diamond Jubilee should have been a chance to rebrand the Royal Family, to build on the goodwill of last summer's wedding. But these plans rack up air miles, pollute the environment and achieve little.
The new year could have seen William and Kate connect with the young in a meaningful way – by living in a hostel or attending a course with young apprentices. They could have worked on an NHS ward and seen dementia at first hand. Instead, they'll be shaking hands with islanders and smiling, vacantly.
Putting Emin in charge of drawing is an inspired idea
I still treasure a large folder containing yellowing A3 pages of painstaking sketches of flowers and seated figures. I loved drawing classes. They provided hours of calm, a chance to be silent and focus on one tiny detail, of a leaf or wisp of hair.
You can't cheat with a drawing, which is why I welcome the appointment of Tracey Emin, one of our most provocative and painfully truthful artists, as professor of drawing at the Royal Academy. There's been predictable outrage from some quarters.
Quentin Letts, in the Daily Mail, moaned, "Is there a clearer illustration of the collapse of our culture?"
What a prissy parliamentary sketch-writer knows about culture is of no interest to me. Drawing is about conveying emotion through a simple line – exactly why Tracey is the person for the job. Her drawings, of birds or anguished versions of herself, speak volumes. Great art isn't about technical achievement; it's about establishing a connection with the viewer.
Tracey's appointment places drawing back in its rightful place – at the heart of contemporary art.
Fans will never get over Nigel
Characters in The Archers have a lower death rate (15 in 20 years) than the national average, says Rob Stepney in the British Medical Journal, but their endings are far more dramatic. Suicides and fatal heart attacks occur more frequently in Ambridge than anywhere else in Britain.
Cruelly, Today was chatting about this last week, when it replayed Nigel's tragic fall from the roof WITHOUT WARNING. We Archers fans are still mourning Nigel (played by Graham Seed); some stopped listening, in protest. Today's editors exhibited shocking insensitivity. All over Britain, fans were sniffling into tissues, and breakfasts were ruined.
I was fined for trusting the train
Train tickets are going up, but expect to pay higher station parking charges too. The Association of Train Operating Companies says: "Charges are similar to those in town centre car parks... millions of pounds are being invested to add extra spaces and make car parks safe and secure."
Bilge. Car parks involve little maintenance, other than painting white lines and collecting the money. If you have bought a ticket, you should have a preferential parking rate. Recently, my Grand Central train was cancelled at no notice, and I arrived at Thirsk an hour late, to find NCP had charged me £25 for running over my parking ticket. I have no way of reclaiming the cash. Until our trains run on time, parking charges must be far more flexible and fair.