Driving on the M4 back to London on Christmas Eve was a joy and a delight: no works, no exit-lane queues blocking the main carriageway, no snow on the road (but enough on either side to enhance the landscape), and an uncommonly brisk and melodious Messiah on Radio 3. The traffic news butted in to declare UK roads and airports open, adding – with an unseasonal touch of glee, I felt – "conditions are much worse in most of Europe".
It was just past the main Heathrow turn-off, though, that the most welcome present awaited: new blue signs at regular intervals pronouncing all three lanes to be the M4. What this meant was that the Heathrow bus lane – John Prescott's chief claim to posterity as Transport Secretary – was no more. Abolished. Gone. Before the promised New Year deadline.
Which prompted some rather vain, but slightly worrying, thoughts. Earlier this year, in this very column, I had shared the fury of M4 drivers who found themselves herded into two near-static queues, while the bus lane – supposedly a vital component of our national tourism strategy – lay pristine and conspicuously empty to the right. Lo, the words were scarcely on the printed page, than the (then new) Government announced that the bus lane would be gone by 2011.
Nor was this the only area in which, scarily, I seemed to be thinking what they were thinking (or vice versa). By way of a report card, I offer you also the following. A couple of months after I had broached a complete rethink of how the BBC World Service is organised and funded, the Foreign Office and the BBC director general concluded a pre-Spending Review deal that transfers funding and control from the one to the other – to, I would argue, the mutual benefit of the Foreign Office and the World Service and, if it gets it right, the rest of the BBC as well.
On migration, I argued that the points system, though politically popular, would not significantly reduce numbers. Any serious cuts would have to focus on visas for students taking non-university courses. Cue an in-box overflowing with incandescent rage from those with jobs or investment in that sector. Granted, this was partly my fault for referring to "bogus English-language colleges". Before the year was out, though, the Home Secretary had said essentially the same thing. Doubtless, many more than those who took issue with me are now even more ferociously lobbying her.
Cheating a little, I return to the summer of 2009 and the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' Abbey Road album for my next exhibit. I wrote then: "The festivities... drew thousands of fans, and camera crews from all over the world. But I have long felt the band that put a nondescript north London street on the global map should share top billing with the other signature feature of that photo: the zebra crossing." Now it does. Last week, the Tourism Minister announced that it had been granted Grade II listed status, on the advice of English Heritage.
With this success rate, I'm inclined to offer a few bright ideas for those petitions the Government is proposing. Some democracy is always better than none, even if it's only a thin veneer.
Sorry, but here I can't agree with Nick
Alas, poor Vince. He didn't just get it in the neck for succumbing to the wiles of a pair of young reporters masquerading as constituents. When that questionable feat of reporting came out, he was still smarting, so it's said, from his party leader's slap on the wrist over his planned appearance on the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas show. Well, here, I disagree with Nick. If a politician excels at something other than politics, and it's something as decorous as ballroom dancing – he did the foxtrot, for heaven's sake, not the tango – let him indulge to his heart's content. It's not his fault ballroom is suddenly trendy.
How often do we find politicians who have an outside interest they have taken to a near-professional level and aren't ashamed of? I can hardly think of anyone since Edward Heath, his carol concerts, and his sailing with Morning Cloud. Did anyone then suggest that conducting or yachting somehow demeaned the office of Prime Minister? I know the Strictly show was recorded before the political stitch-up, but the Business Secretary received an ecstatic reception, or so I fancied. With this audience, at least, it seems his dancing adds a humanising dimension that can only be an asset to his politics. Come on Nick, give him a break. Your party could do with some of his reflected glitz.
'Tis the season to help our feathered friends
When the first snow fell, I looked out of the kitchen window to find a pigeon clinging to what remained of the ivy and pecking for all it was worth. This was no mean feat, as our flat is seven floors up and the birds I mostly see are either flying or fluffed up, trying to keep warm, on neighbouring chimney-pots. It was also hard to know how to help: without a balcony or even a window box, putting out food for the birds is not really feasible. And even if it was, there's the pigeon issue. Their numbers and droppings have led to the flocks that once adorned Trafalgar Square being reclassified as vermin.
But that hungry pigeon took me back to having a garden and a bird-table and the conclusion that no one in my experience of foreign parts takes feeding the birds quite as seriously as the British – or waits so hopefully for the feathered visitors day by day, or laments when the "bully" squirrel or crow "steals" from the robin, or strings up meat fat and coconut shells to tempt them, or even buys birdseed off the shelf. In its Saturday magazine, The Independent has a small feature called "minor British institutions". Feeding the birds, I submit, is quite a major British institution. Desperate somehow to do my bit, I'm off to the park to feed the ducks.
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