Digested week: it feels outrageous to have a cold again


It’s a feature of single parenting that you have to outsource some aspects of your children’s education to people beyond the immediate family. Where a partner or spouse might fill in your gaps, friends must be called upon. My gaps are, among other things, maths, American history, effective confrontation, the interstate system and the turnpikes that lead to it, and some music stuff I thought I might get away with.

That last delusion comes crashing down at the weekend when my six-year-old’s periodic whinge about my music taste escalates to formal complaint. “You don’t know any good songs,” she says, and although she is wrong about this – the songs I know are the very best songs – I call my friend Tiffany, who used to work for Rolling Stone, and ask her to go full School of Rock.

Ten minutes later a playlist arrives. “I’m going old school so she learns the roots,” texts Tiff, and her list features Joan Jett, some Run DMC/Aerosmith, Heart’s Barracuda, Rick Springfield and some classic Pat Benatar. For a full day, my child is in heaven. On Sunday morning I cut her off and, as I do every Sunday, ask Alexa to put on BBC Radio 2 for Elaine Paige. I was listening to Elaine’s show 15 years ago in London, listen to it now in New York, and fully expect to be listening to it wherever I am when I’m 90 and Elaine is 122. “How can you like this?” says my daughter, a piece of heresy for which I make her listen to the soundtrack to Chess until she buries her head in the sofa and screams.

The most useful takeaway from this episode, perhaps, is that snobbery has a habit of coming back to bite you. On Monday my daughter goes to dance and comes home asking for the song they’re using in class – Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger. “Terrible,” says Tiff, when I turn this over to her. “Don’t kill it for her,” I say. There’s an ominous pause. “I won’t, yet. But Maroon 5, it can’t be allowed to stand.”


Tiff and her wife are arguing about Squid Game, in particular how each of them would fare as contestants. “You would die and I would survive,” says Tiff’s wife with total confidence, a statement my friend relates to me ruefully over the phone. “Actually what she said was: ‘You’d be useful in the tug of war, except you’d be dead by then. You’d have been out in red light green light.’”

This is a harsh assessment, but one we both agree is probably true. The how-would-you-fare game is a hardy perennial to be played in the wake of any popular disaster movie or TV show – Titanic, the Walking Dead, the Poseidon Adventure. Prior to Squid Game we’d been giving thoughtful consideration to how each of us might’ve fared in Time, Jimmy McGovern’s brilliant show for the BBC in which Sean Bean plays a mild-mannered teacher horribly bullied in prison after being convicted of manslaughter. (Poorly, we both agreed, in spite of Tiff’s wife’s conviction she’d do fine inside as “the muscle”.)

On a national scale, Britain’s undying preoccupation with the second world war is a game of how-would-you-fare that has recently been forced to undergo an adjustment. A consequence of Covid – specifically, of people in England denouncing their neighbours to the authorities for taking too many walks – puts paid to what feels like a widespread delusion that we would have fared better under German occupation than the French.

Mary Berry is made a Dame Commander by Britain’s Prince Charles
Photo of the week 1: ‘One has heard of “baking” of course, but one has never done it personally.’ Photograph: Jonathan Brady/AP


In the 1980s the drug lord Pablo Escobar set up a private zoo in Colombia and filled it with wild animals he had smuggled into the country. After the property was seized by authorities, the zoo was dismantled and the animals sold off. For some reason, four hippos were left behind. This week the Washington Post ran a fascinating report about the afterlife of those hippos and the threat they now pose to Colombian wildlife.

It was assumed the four hippos would die. Instead they flourished and now, almost 30 years later, there are 120 of them. Ecologists predict that if something isn’t done about it, in another 20 years there’ll be well over 1,000. Looking 20 years beyond that, one starts to envisage Planet of the Apes but with hippos.

On first hearing, the story sounds like a triumph. The problem, say ecologists, is that there are no predators in Colombia big enough to take on a hippo, so the numbers are out of control. The hippos are eating too many fish, polluting water supplies and even biting people. The scientists have characterised them as an “invasive species” and made a case for sterilisation, until it took them three months and $50,000 to track down and sterilise a single hippo. Culling, they now say, is the only answer.

But killing a hippo is different to killing a boring old bug, and the Colombian public have pushed back. The scientists may have to engage some kind of black ops PR agency to smear the hippos. It might help to flag up their connection to Escobar.


Everyone is sick. Everyone we know is sick. It’s not Covid but the return of the regular cold, which after making a brief appearance in the summer is now roaring through New York, crushing everything in its path.

It feels outrageous to be sick again, and after worsening all week in our house, by Thursday it’s every man for himself. I’m under the duvet in the bedroom, refusing to move. The kids are under blankets on the sofa, where they watch six straight hours of Nickelodeon. At dinner time we emerge, owl-eyed, to convene in the kitchen, blinking painfully under the lights. Someone has to make dinner. I look at my two six-year-olds. They look at me. It’s the single occasion when I think: goddamnit, why didn’t I get married.


We rally sufficiently to return to work and school. “Madison broke up with me,” says my daughter at pickup. I look at her. “By which I mean,” she says – she has started to preface her statements with “you make a good point,” “the thing is” and “by which I mean”, verbal tics that I recognise with horror as my own – “by which I mean,” she says, “she doesn’t want to do her art project with me any more.”

I’m sympathetic. I tell her that I, too, have known the pain of a girl not wanting to do her art project with me any more. I reassure her there will be many, many more art projects in her future and honestly, not to be mean – a phrase used by my children whenever they’re about to drop a devastating review of something or someone – I’m not convinced Madison’s art projects were up to much in the first place. Call me a snob, but it’s OK to have standards.

Joe Biden is greeted by children at the Capitol Child Development Center in Hartford, Connecticut
Photo of the week 2: ‘I know, I’m still jazzed the other guy isn’t president, too.’ Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images