DJ Taylor: Burning the candle at both ends suits Kiera, but it's not for Dave

Cameron is better off as Cavalier than Roundhead, Richard Dawkins is right to rant, and here's to the approach of melancholia as the nights draw in
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The Independent Online

With the coalition's 100th day in office fast approaching, several commentators have already filed interim profit-and-loss accounts.

One singular characteristic which has caught the commentariat's eye, it turns out, is David Cameron's decision to work shorter hours. According to the New Statesman, the Prime Minister rarely descends to his desk at No 10 until 8.30am and is almost never there after 7o'clock at night. Tim Montgomerie, editor of the Conservativehome blog, has warned that if the Cameron Government is to match Mrs Thatcher's ambition, it also needs her work ethic. "She spent most evenings working on government papers," he reminds us, with a certain steely relish, "and her family life suffered because of it."

Before everyone starts accusing Cameron of being a reckless, pleasure-loving Cavalier, in contrast to all those whey-faced New Labour Puritans who preceded him, it is worth pointing out that the idea that political leaders ought to work themselves into the ground is a fairly recent one. Ronald Reagan, for example, was notoriously relaxed about his responsibilities. "Show me an executive that doesn't delegate" he is once supposed to have said, "and I'll show you a bad executive."

The recent tradition of desk-bound austerity may well have been inaugurated by Harold Wilson, who announced, on his arrival in Downing Street, that there would be no social life (this was taken as a criticism of his predecessor as labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, who was reputed to be a bit of a boulevardier) and deprecated his Chancellor Roy Jenkins' habit of leaving the Treasury at 6pm.

On the other hand, you can't help feeling that there are advantages in Mr Cameron's less than fully committed ten-and-a-half-hour day. The very worst prime ministers, history and literature insist, are the brooding solitaries – to name names would be invidious – the ones who chain themselves to their work simply to fuel their temperamental perplexities. Trollope's The Prime Minister (1876) contains an unforgettable portrait of Plantagenet Palliser, endlessly stewing in his study over what the newspapers are saying about him and, in the end, quite unfit for office. In fact, The Prime Minister contains another lesson for Mr Cameron. This is the scene in which Palliser laments his lack of success to his cabinet colleague, the Duke of St Bungay. Nonsense, the Duke reassures: he has kept Her Majesty's Government going. Naturally governments need policies, plans and targets but, as Cam-eron may eventually come to reflect, this is quite an achieve- ment in itself.

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As politicians, government agencies and the commercial sector never tire of reminding us, we live in a participative, if not interactive, society in which everyone's opinion is eagerly sought and a bright consultative sheen – or at any rate the illusion of one – hangs over practically every public enterprise. But what if the opinions offered are scarcely worth the having? This thought occurred to me when I came across a letter to my local paper commenting on the recent spate of pronouncements on the "ageing population" of the UK. "All governments and councils tell us we are an ageing population" began a gentleman from Aylsham, Norfolk. "It is an excuse to keep old age pensions low and services for the elderly barely adequate. During the past 30 years the population of England has increased by eight million, mostly due to young immigrants. Birth rates are increasing again. It is most unlikely we are an ageing population."

Intrigued by the confidence of these assertions, I did a little research on the Office for National Statistics website. This shows that in the past quarter-century the percentage of the UK population aged 65 and over has risen from 15 to 16, and that the percentage of the population below the age of 16 has fallen from 21 to 19. By 2034, the population of over-65s is projected to rise to 23 per cent and the number of under-16s to decline to 18 per cent. The number of live births in 2008 was 794,400 and in 2009 it was 790, 200.

I rather think this is evidence of an ageing population, but of course the correspondent from Aylsham is entitled to his opinion.

It is the same among the Amazon book reviewers. Here you may find people who have read Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire in its entirety without realising that it is a biography rather than a work of fiction, and who are enraged when a novel turns out to have more than one narrative strand. Given how snootily hierarchical most public forums used to be, we clearly need as much participation and interaction as possible, but you sometimes feel that anyone who wants to enter a tea-making competition should start off by learning how to boil water.

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Hats off to Professor Richard Dawkins for his latest intervention in the field of religious debate. Interviewed by the Radio Times, Professor Dawkins referred to the burqa as "a full bin-liner thing". Questioned subsequently by the Daily Mail, he remarked that he felt "visceral revulsion" at the burqa which, to him, was "a symbol of the oppression of women". Although he then conceded that he hesitates to propose an outright ban on dress, these comments provoked fury among Muslim groups, who have accused him of being "ignorant" and "Islamophobic".

According to Seyyed Ferjani of the Muslim Association of Britain, "it is a woman's choice if she wishes to wear a burqa, a niqab or not". I think the point Professor Dawkins is making is that in many cases burqa-wearing is not a matter of choice.

My enthusiasm for Professor Dawkins' rant lies not in the fact that it offends Muslims, but that it marks the emergence of a new, egalitarian strand in his atheist project. Rather than solely attacking meek Christianity, which never fights back, Dawkins has turned his attention to another religious group whose attitude to criticism is, shall we say, a touch less emollient. It is now his duty to insult Hindus and Buddhists as belligerently as possible. Equality demands it.

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Brought up to regard property make-over programmes as one of the lowest forms of broadcasting – one peg down from stand-up comedy, one peg up from topless darts, let us say – I was nonetheless fascinated by Channel Four's new offering, the imaginatively titled Help! My House is Falling Down. Here, rather than focussing on techniques to improve your property's saleability, presenter Sarah Beeny concentrates on keeping the thing in one piece, dealing with infestations of plaster-gobbling insects, splintering joists and so on.

This aspect of houseownerdom is never fully appreciated, and within a minute or two's exposure to Ms Beeny's suasive tones, I was spiritually returned to 22 Galveston Road, London SW15, our domicile between 1993 and 2001, with its defective roof, its crumbling mortar, its joke roofers who once entombed a brace of pigeons in the loft (their bleeding corpses later brought out by a rifle-toting pest disposal operative), and its sad-eyed electricians who would no sooner quit the premises than the supply would fail again.

"'Whenever you come into my room," my eldest son pointed out during one long wet winter, "you always look straight at the ceiling." The reason I did this, I later explained, was that I feared it was about to collapse on top of him. Channel 4 is on to something here.

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There always comes a moment at this time of year – reading the first Premier League results, feeling the wind off the University of East Anglia's artificial lake when I am struck by the happy thought that autumn isn't far away. Presumably this keenness on the September to November stretch has something to do with temperament. "You have an autumnal personality," a girl once told me, and it wasn't a compliment. Curiously, the love of falling leaves and stiff breezes is still going strong in middle age, a time when self-conscious hankerings after melancholia are thought to have passed.

Anthony Powell remembered a conversation he had as a very young man with the celebrated hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell in which she enquired: did he prefer the autumn to the spring? Powell said he liked the autumn. Lady Ottoline lobbed back that when you were old you preferred the spring. "The interesting fact," Powell decided, "is that Lady Ottoline was absolutely right." Then, coming back from a rain-drenched dog walk I saw on the news that wildlife experts are predicting that this year's autumn will be delayed. Apparently, the beech leaves have yet to turn, and the berries are hopelessly behind. And so, like the man from Aylsham, with his views about our ageing population, it seems that I am talking through my hat.

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