Detective sergeant Chris Healey first heard the name Nilsen while sat at his desk on a February afternoon in 1983. The previous day, what looked like human remains had been discovered in a drain outside a house in Muswell Hill, north London. The occupant, a mild-mannered civil servant called Dennis Nilsen, calmly told investigators that the flesh belonged to men he had murdered. As he was driven away in a police car, Nilsen bragged that he had killed as many as “15 or 16 since 1978” - a number that immediately divided opinion among the investigation squad convened that afternoon. “I was a bit sceptical,” remembers Healey, 69, from his home in Bournemouth. “A lot of people thought at the time that he was a fantasist and that couldn't be the case.” But, soon enough, officers discovered more than 1,000 fragments of human tooth and bone at Nilsen’s old flat in Cricklewood, where he lived until 1981. The case was among the most baffling of Healey’s 31-year career - although, having already worked on terrorist investigations during The Troubles, he did not find it all that gruelling. The memories are particularly fresh this week, following the conclusion of the well-received ITV drama, Des, which tells the story of the investigation into Nilsen, a floppy-haired former policeman who later worked at a job centre in Kentish Town. He is thought to have murdered 15 young men between 1978 and 1983, making him Britain’s second-most prolific criminal, after Harold Shipman. He preyed on rootless drifters, some of whom were homeless, meeting them in pubs or gaming arcades before inviting them back to his flat, where he usually strangled them, or drowned them in his bathtub. Of the 15 Nilsen claimed to have murdered, only seven were ever identified. He was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 25 years, which was upped in 1994 to a whole-life tariff. He died in 2018. Healey thinks the TV drama does an excellent job of conveying the sheer grisliness of those crimes. He remembers searching Nilsen’s flat the morning after his arrest and finding a pair of human legs in the bathroom. Exhibits would usually be removed from the house in evidence bags, but, with photographers outside, Healey and his colleagues instead placed the torso in a coffin. He later learnt that the torso belonged to 20-year-old Stephen Sinclair, an Australian tourist with drug issues whose disappearance had prompted considerable interest from the press. Nilsen preyed on Sinclair as he walked down Oxford Street in January 1983, offering to buy him a hamburger before inviting him back to his flat, where he strangled him with a rope while listening to the rock opera, Tommy. In Des, Healey is played by Jay Simpson, of Foyle’s War fame - although Healey jokes that he is “not as cockney” as his on-screen equivalent. One detail of the TV drama that is more accurate, he says, is the constant cigarette smoking: “Virtually everyone smoked in those days, it was like a fog inside the office.” Healey was particularly impressed by David Tennant’s depiction of Nilsen, which perfectly conveyed the killer’s unnervingly nonchalant, almost affable demeanour, he thinks. “He didn’t seem to be fazed about it at all. You’d think you might fear that you’re next to a mass murderer, but it wasn’t like you’ve got Hannibal Lecter next to you. He was very civil, you could chat to him.” Indeed, the killer used to crack all manner of bizarre jokes at his interrogators’ expense. At one point, Healey took Nilsen for a doctor’s examination - various scratches had been found around his body, and police thought they may have been put there by his victims, trying to fight him off in their dying moments. The doctor told Nilsen to drop his cigarette down the sink, because there weren’t any ashtrays. Nilsen responded: “Are you sure you want me to do that? The last time I put something down the drain, it ended up being nicked.” Healey remembers: “You just couldn’t believe he had that sense of humour when he’s been arrested and he’s got 15 bodies hanging over his head.”
As allegories go, it’s nigh on perfect. A football team socially distances from their opponent, as they fear catching coronavirus. Their rivals interpret the rules altogether differently and, with wild abandon, hit the net every two-and-a-half minutes. Final score: 37-0. Already a viral sensation, the game between amateur German sides SV Holdenstedt II and SG Ripdorf/Molzen II can be written into folklore as a symbol for our Covid age. For coronavirus has divided us roughly into two camps, like opposing teams on a football field. We now know that, during a global pandemic, some will fret and withdraw from the world – stay home, stick to scientific advice, save lives. And others will assert their individuality, cling to their freedom – live and let die. A tale of two teams... This shaggy sporting tale came to pass after Holdenstedt faced a team that featured a player infected with Covid-19. Though the entire Holdenstedt squad tested negative for the virus, Ripdorf, their next opponent (and local rival), still felt unsafe. The fixture was within 14-days of Holdenstedt’s squad coming into contact with the infected player. Ripdorf’s co-chair Patrick Ristow later explained: “We tried to postpone the match, but Holdenstedt wanted to play.” And that meant Ripdorf had a decision to make: play the game, or fail to turn up and face a €200 penalty, as per the 11th tier league's rules. "That's a lot of money for us,” Ristow said, “especially amid the pandemic.” Cut to the game itself. Ripdorf lined up with seven players – the minimum required for the football match to go ahead. As it turned out, Holdenstedt's first team didn’t even feature; the XI was instead made up of second-string players. Nonetheless, safety-first Ripdorf kicked off by passing the ball to Holdenstedt and then immediately retreating to the sidelines. Inevitably, this gifted Holdenstedt a goal in the first minute. The match referee, clearly bewildered, duly booked Ripdorf’s captain for unsporting behaviour. Presumably fearing a succession of cards, followed by another league-imposed fine, Ripdorf’s players returned to the pitch. But, as the scoreline implies, to call the contest closely-fought would be incorrect. “They did not go into direct duels and observed the social distancing rules,” said Ristow, “keeping two metres between them and Holdenstedt players.” That's right: they played one-sided socially distanced football.
It is remarked more than once in the current ITV mini-series Des that the serial killer Dennis Nilsen seemed like such a normal bloke. When I met him, I thought the same thing. It was the late Eighties, and he was incarcerated in Wakefield Prison, West Yorkshire, serving a life sentence for six counts of murder and two attempted murders. He had admitted killing at least 15 men and boys in the Seventies and Eighties, luring them back to his flat from various London bars. The much-publicised case had loomed large in my family’s horrified minds: the Cranley Gardens flat in Muswell Hill where some of the remains of Nilsen’s victims were discovered lay just down the road from the clothes shop my mother owned and ran in the area. The crimes had taken place so close to streets we knew well. But as I sat in the passenger seat of the car that, years later, took me to Wakefield, I didn’t know I was about to encounter the man who had carried them out. I was a young lecturer in the French department at the University of Leeds at the time. A colleague in the Politics department used to travel to the prison once a week to teach inmates an adult education class. “Perhaps you’d like to come and do a guest seminar?” he suggested one day. Without giving it much thought, I agreed. He didn’t tell me who I’d be teaching, but when I entered the room at the high security prison - an unremarkable space resembling a sixth form college classroom - I knew the 10 men who sat in an expectant semi-circle before me must have done unspeakable things. It wasn’t my business that day to know what these were. I had prepared a seminar on representations of race in the media, a subject I was then teaching, and felt no little trepidation about how it would be received. I needn’t have worried at all. All the prisoners dealt with the topic very sensitively indeed. They seemed interested and engaged throughout.
It’s not just the lockdown. There is so much about your late forties – midlife – that seem to suck the fun out of existence. For many, this is the first decade in which everything suddenly becomes heavier. There is so much good news in your twenties and thirties your friends are finding partners, landing great jobs, making babies. 20 years later, logging into the fifth Zoom call of the day, kids in college, you finally ask the question: what about me? Nursing another pointless hangover, bank account continually emptying, knees creaking, you walk into a midlife crisis like an open cupboard door. This week a study by former Bank of England economist David Blanchflower confirmed what we all suspected: that people are most miserable as they enter midlife, the worst year of all being 48. The survey asked the following question in 145 different countries: “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” Around the globe respondents in their late forties gave the most doom-laden responses. At the beginning of the lockdown, age 47, I found myself in ICU at the bedside of my mother, who had had a stroke. There I was worried about work, paying the mortgage, my A-level student son getting his grades. Yet here I was reassuring her, making notes as doctors talked. There was so much happening that I didn’t feel able to give any problem the time it deserved. Conversations have turned to death and damage limitation, trusts and wills and finding answers to questions I would really rather not ask. Self-pityingly, I felt I was a year into midlife and already preparing for old age. My childhood never felt further away in the rear-view mirror. Midlifers know all about mortality – what was distant suddenly becomes gloomily present. Add in frailty – in midlife bits start to banjo, and drop off. People you know and love – parents and your peers will have health scares, screenings, minor and major operations and some will die. Because of all of this, even having fun feels like more of a conscious effort. People who used to be in a couples will be single, some will be in rehab, others feeling their age will need to go to bed earlier and become deeply boring because they suffer from terrible haemorrhoids or even gout. Suddenly we have all become more sensible. Carefree was yesterday. All of this adds to the ever-present fog of ennui that hangs over midlife. As a journalist, I have travelled around the world and done some amazing things – I’ve written novels – but I don’t seem to be able to avoid the feeling that I haven’t actually achieved anything. I know I’m not alone in experiencing disillusionment. We pick our prospective careers (and partners) at a relatively young age. By the time we begin to reach full maturity – at around 45 – these choices can feel completely mismatched with the people we have become. Some of my best friends have come to realise that corporate careers which have been life-long projects, are actually sucking the joy out of their lives. They realise that big salaries that once brought a sense of prestige do little more than service a huge pile of debt. From a distance it seems that the price of financial security is depression. Some have made serious plans to simplify their lives. Superficially they are cashing out of London. In reality they are in search of a lighter existence. They want to feel like the people they were. This feels like a journey best undertaken with the person you started it with, and I am lucky that I managed to choose my partner well. The sad thing is that so many couples that always seemed to be such good friends and have so much fun, now seem suddenly unable to talk to one another. Complicating this is the menopause, which seems to completely confound most men. I think at midlife we all become that bit angrier, that bit more intractable. We all say things we shouldn’t. I plan to fight all this. I have no intention of becoming more miserable at 48. At the point in my life that my responsibilities and obligations feel heavier than ever, I plan to duck the cupboard door by being more, not less grateful for all that I have.
David Starkey will not shut up. The self-styled “alienated intellectual,” whose mother repeatedly warned him: “Your tongue will be the ruin of you,” may have been cancelled but he refuses to be silenced - despite the chorus of disapproval. Sajid Javid joined the universal condemnation when the historian and broadcaster suggested in July that slavery was not genocide. Discussing the debate surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement on rightwing commentator Darren Grimes’ podcast, the 75-year-old said: “Slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain would there? You know, an awful lot of them survived.” The former Chancellor seemed to sum up the wide-spread revulsion when he tweeted:
With its networks of highly competitive middle class retirees, secret syndicates and quiet obsessives, the very British pursuit of top-level television quizzing is known to be a small world. Judging by last night’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, however, it may be even smaller than once thought. On Friday’s episode of ITV’s long-running quiz show, Donald Fear, a 57-year-old history teacher from Shropshire, became the first person to win the jackpot in 14 years when he correctly answered all 15 questions put to him by host Jeremy Clarkson. Just a year earlier, Fear’s older brother, Davyth, 60, also appeared on the programme, taking home £500,000 when he decided against guessing at the £1m question. Fear’s victory – the sixth in the show’s history and first since it was relaunched with Clarkson presenting – comes just months after ITV aired James Graham’s drama Quiz, which told the story of how “the coughing major”, Charles Ingram, gained a place on the programme with the help of a somewhat shadowy (but entirely legal) syndicate of British quiz fanatics that won millions over several years. The syndicate included Ingram's brother-in-law.
Somewhere in Northern Ireland is a primary school teacher who told Dara McAnulty’s parents that their son would “never be able to string a sentence together”. If it was you, you can be forgiven for blushing because evening, Dara, aged 16, has become the UK’s youngest-ever winner of a major literature prize. Diary of a Young Naturalist, his coming-of age memoir about how his intense, passionate connection with nature helped him escape from the bullies at school who targeted him because of his autism, was awarded the annual Wainwright Prize, named after the much-loved Lakeland fell walker, Alfred Wainwright. Previous winners have included Robert Macfarlane, Adam Nicholson and John Lewis-Stempel. “School has not been a good experience,” Dara reflects from the sofa of the family home in Castlewellan in County Down with Rosie, his rescue greyhound in a basket at his feet. “There have been the bullies who have been rather incessant.” Nature, he says plainly, “saved” him. “It gave me a place where I could go that wasn’t judgmental. A squirrel or a robin isn’t going to turn round and say what you are doing is stupid.” “And that way, I could relax in nature without the burdens and pressure of the real world as it is, [because of] that ability that nature seems to provide that, when you walk among trees, you can walk among your own thoughts.” On account of Covid, the award ceremony was held online, which Dara confesses came as something of a relief. At the best of times, he finds travel “can be incredibly stressful”, while until recently even sitting down in front of a computer screen and talking to me would have been beyond him. “I would never in a million years have dreamt that I could do this. I struggled talking to my parents at times.” When he started, aged 12, posting a nature blog about what he saw and experienced in Big Dog Forest, near the then family home in County Fermanagh, he had imagined that it might at best be read by a few of his mum’s friends. “At that time, I was socially isolating myself from everybody. I didn’t want to interact with people because people are unpredictable. And that scares me.”
The Official Preppy Handbook was first published in 1980. It celebrated (and also poked fun at) a way of dressing, and indeed living, that had been established for decades on the elite US university campuses. The fetishizing of the smart-casual lifestyles of well-to-do, conservative college kids continues to this day: forty years on from the Handbook, Preppy is a defining menswear code of 2020 - not just Over There, but here, too, where boat shoes worn for reasons other than boating, turned-up chinos and colourful polo shirts, signet rings and V-neck sweaters, are once again objects of desire not only for the comfortably middle aged, but among the cutting-edge jeunesse doree, too. Fashion’s chin-stroking sociologists will no doubt diagnose multiple psychopathologies behind this development. But there’s no great secret to it: in this discomfiting year, when so many of us have found ourselves marooned at home feeling, well, discomfited, what could be more appealing than slipping into one of the most approachable styles of the pre-Covid twentieth century, a golden age during which — as all young people know — everyone was attractive and wealthy and nothing ever went wrong? The zenith of Preppy might be thought to be the early Sixties, when Preppy icon JFK was in the White House. (Kennedy was a Catholic Democrat, of course, rather than a WASP Republican, but he did look great on a yacht.) It’s had its moments in the shade since then — it looked pretty square a decade later, when the Hippy roamed the earth — but Preppy staged a comeback in the Eighties, when tasselled loafers were pressed to the pedals of Porsche convertibles without a hint of shame, or irony; adolescents wore blazers without being bribed to do so; and the playing of lacrosse was — very briefly — not regarded as likely to accelerate the preconditions for violent revolution. It’s that version of Preppy that has made an unscheduled return, revving its engine like the chiselled villain from an Eighties teen movie, a pastel sweater tossed over its shoulders and loosely knotted at the chest, like a cashmere cape. Among menswear aficionados the new-look Preppy is referred to as Neo-Prep or Prep 2.0. This suggests a major overhaul when in fact it’s had not much more than a gentle refresh. A new class of labels offer, with a worshipful tip of the sunhat to classic preppy brands — Ralph Lauren, Lacoste et al — a slightly bolder take on the established essentials: slogan sweats, rugby shirts, button-downs, polos, chinos, stripes and checks. Just a few of the young names making the running: Noah, Aime Leon Dore, Rowing Blazers, Ami, Maison Kitsune. I think a bit of Preppy, old or new, is just dandy in a man’s wardrobe. One doesn’t want to go about with the name of an American university one has never visited, let alone studied at, emblazoned across one’s chest, but a smart sweatshirt worn over a button-down, chinos and loafers: what’s not to tolerate? One note of caution to the Preppy Brit: the aforementioned pullover slung over the shoulders is the sort of thing best left, old sport, to our more Gatsbyish cousins on the other side of the Atlantic. Even if you graduated summa cum laude from Yale, you can’t expect to get away with that. Alex Bilmes is editor in chief of Esquire. Try these for size...
Some clothes are out of fashion almost as quickly as they arrive. Then there are the menswear perennials, classics that never let you down, and only get better as they get older. The denim shirt sits in that bracket, and it’s one of those wardrobe essentials I could not do without. Depending on how it is detailed, the way it is cut and the treatment the fabric has undergone, I’d argue there’s almost nowhere you can’t wear it, other than formal black-tie events. It’s also pretty much seasonless; worn as a shacket (shirt/jacket hybrid), as a cover-up for summer, or as an extra layer for when the days grow shorter. The first thing to decide when buying one is what its primary function will be. There are denim shirts suited to smarter occasions, with preppy button-down collars (so you can wear them with a tie), and there are those with heritage-inspired Western detailing that tap into the rugged machismo of the Marlboro Man. M&S; Collection, Zara and PS by Paul Smith have you covered for the smarter style of shirt; all are cut from a lightweight denim that can be tucked into trousers, and all feature button-down collars. Levi’s, AllSaints and Belstaff, however, are all firmly on the authentically styled dustbowl denim side of the fence. AllSaints’ Western denim shirt comes in taupe, so is a good way to avoid blue-on-blue, double-denim overload if you wear it with jeans. Belstaff’s version is in an untreated, heavyweight dark denim; a suitable replacement for a jacket if worn over a T-shirt. Levi’s Barstow shirt is an iconic design that has been updated year-on-year in countless permutations. Some straddle the line between casual and formal. APC, Uniqlo and Cos have excellent options here; collarless can also be a savvy choice. Eight of the best
‘Tabloid pin-up’ is a phrase more often linked to fresh-faced Instagram stars than sun-bathing septuagenarians. Yet there Charles Dance was this week, emerging from the Venetian sea like a bronzed, retired Bond, setting the internet ablaze. Double-O 73’s trip to the Italian coast went viral in part due to Dance’s chiselled, age-defying physique (he somehow looks younger now than he did more than a decade ago); but also the mystery pal photographed on his arm. This click-friendly combination reminded the world that, even in these fraught times, you can guarantee a few things in life. Death, taxes, and Charles Dance’s everlasting sex appeal. So, with the actor approaching his mid-70s, yet neither his abs nor his magnetism showing any sign of stopping, we ask: what’s the secret to his longevity? Career The 007 comparison is actually quite fitting. Not only did Dance appear as a villain in For Your Eyes Only, he once turned down the chance to play Bond. He was offered an audition following his breakout role in 1984’s Jewel in the Crown, but Dance rejected the invitation. Why? In case he didn’t get it. “Also, my hair was quite ginger,” he said in 2018. “I thought, ‘Nah, you can’t have a ginger Bond’." Bond aside, Dance’s career is as long as it storied. Best known in recent years for his role as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones, his CV spans 50-years, and he’s scarcely been without work since his first role – as Badger in a stage version of Toad of Toad Hall – in 1971. Maybe Dance’s strength is embracing variety, and not taking himself too seriously. His CV is steeped in drama – The Crown, Phantom of the Opera and The Imitation Game all feature alongside GoT – but also camp action and comedy. To a certain demographic, he’s less known for Bleak House, more Ali G Indahouse. And who can forget Dance squaring off against Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero? Or his regular gig reading trashy memoirs on Channel 4’s The Big Fat Quiz?
The ‘Unite for Freedom’ protest over the bank holiday weekend drew what might politely be described as an eclectic bunch to London’s Trafalgar Square. Ostensibly held to argue that the Covid-19 pandemic is a hoax, the demonstration served instead to unite the cranks. Among those in attendance were anti 5G protestors, anti-vaxxers, anti-mask wearers, someone waving the flag of the British Union of Fascists and the conspiracy theorist David Icke who announced to the crowd “what a joy it is to look out upon an island of sanity in a world of madness”. Standing next to him on the speakers’ podium, grinning in a baggy grey blazer and wearing a sticker reading ‘Refuse the Tracking App’, was Piers Corbyn, older brother of the former Labour leader and one of the principal organisers of the event. The 73-year-old Corbyn was later bundled into a police van and held for 10 hours after which he was given a £10,000 fine – one of the first handed out under new lockdown measures introduced last Friday designed to prevent gatherings of 30 people or more. In a later tweet to his more than 32,000 followers, Piers Corbyn called the demonstration an "epic success".
Of all the seasonal transitions, the one from summer to autumn is the most poignant. ‘Summer’s lease hath all too short a date’ wrote Shakespeare, and climate change notwithstanding it remains as true now as it did then. The elision has certain, immutable markers: the Last Night of the Proms, the shadows lengthening over the Oval gasworks as the final Test of the season is played out, the mornings a little bit chillier. But this year the Proms has no audience and the final Test took place in a biosecure Southampton bubble. Only the crisper dawns after weeks of tropical nights hint at normality: but there’s been little normal about the past few months, and there may be little normal about the months to come either. 1816 was called the Year Without A Summer, the climate skewed by the effects of a volcanic explosion 12 months before. 2020 will go down in history as the same, which is ironic for a year which saw the third hottest British day on record. There were no Olympics and no Euro 2020, and if anything can bring people together it’s massive international sporting events. There was no Glastonbury (nor indeed any other festivals), no Chelsea Flower Show or Glyndebourne as we know it, no tentpole cinema releases. Whatever your tastes, there was nothing for you.
Jumpers made for summer have never been an easy sell; they are known as sweaters with good reason. But they can prove very useful, seeing you through the season’s chillier tail end and bridging the transition into autumn. As a man in my early 50s, I can’t own enough plain-coloured, crew-neck jumpers. One of the most versatile of wardrobe staples, they are a safe option when paired with jeans or chinos, and are an age-appropriate substitute for a shirt when worn with tailoring. For summer you should look for fine-gauge yarns; meaning they will be super-light in weight and usually thin enough to see through if you hold them up to a window. River Island has a great example in a cotton-mix with a subtle ribbed pattern. Marks & Spencer, however, is a hotspot for staple crew-necks; the fit is right and prices aren’t crazy. One of my favourite pieces from the current M&S; Collection is a sweatshirt/sweater hybrid (looks like a jersey sweatshirt but is knitted), that is made for Sunday mornings. Emporio Armani’s silk-blend knit follows a popular trend for transforming stalwart summer materials such as silk and linen into knitting yarn, which adds texture and breathability. French Connection’s cotton-mix chain-yarn sweater works in much the same way by allowing air to circulate. Of course, knitwear doesn’t only mean sweaters. You can find almost any kind of top in a knitted fabrication. Frescobol Carioca’s camp-collared resort shirt and Sirplus’s short-sleeved button-through polo prove the point, while Zara has gone one better with a knitted interpretation of a classic short-sleeve tee. Eight knits for now
“Las Vegas was a dream for someone like me. It was the crook’s adventure playground. Cops in our pocket. Money rolling in. Women rolling by. This was our town.” said ex-mobster Frank Culotta. He was looking out at the twinkling lights and neon signs as we drove down the infamous strip. “But look at it now!” he pointed to a bystander in shorts and a baseball cap. “What the hell is he wearing with his belly hanging out like that? In my day you dressed up to go out.” He sighed. “I liked it the way it used to be.” As of last week, the way it used to be retreated even further into the past. Culotta, the last surviving link with the Las Vegas mafia era, died of Covid-19 and underlying conditions, aged 81. Last year, while I was researching a documentary with Nutopia Productions, he gave me a tour of Vegas like no other. In between deep breaths on his portable oxygen tanks, Frank told me about life in the Seventies and Eighties: the glamour, the robberies, the murders. Vegas was exploding with money and violence. Arriving in 1978, he found himself in a gangster’s paradise.
Some children have Airfix kits – and I got through plenty of those – but growing up on a military base in Germany, where my father served with the Royal Tank Regiment, I also had something else to fuel my boyhood enthusiasm. At the time in the Sixties, he was a sergeant and part of the test crew for what were the then new Chieftain tanks. These pioneering machines were equipped with 120mm guns capable of firing explosive and anti-tank rounds, and maintaining deadly accuracy even when driving at 25mph over treacherous terrain. I would go on to serve on those tanks myself, following in my father’s footsteps. The Chieftain then was the latest evolution in armoured warfare, which in turn was replaced by Challenger One and later the current Challenger 2 tanks Britain has today. The tank is one of the most important inventions in the history of warfare. It might be more than 100 years old, but it has been vital in modern conflicts, particularly in Iraq from 2003 onwards.
Imagine the life of a world renowned, £6 million-a-year football manager, fresh from one of the defining moments of his career. A huge mansion in an exclusive suburb? A garage full of Mercedes or Porsches, perhaps supplied by a sponsor? Rails of sleek designer suits? The reality for the unique figure who has delivered the rebirth of Leeds United, and will next month oversee the club’s first game in the Premier League for 16 years, however, is rather different. He lives in a rented one-bedroom flat above a newsagent’s; he walks to and from work, his backpack making him look like he’s on his way to a seniors’ hiking-group meeting; and he is rarely seen wearing anything apart from a baggy clubissued tracksuit. Even to a black-tie dinner. Welcome to the remarkably unremarkable world of Marcelo Bielsa, the eccentric 65-year-old Argentine maverick who is known to some as ‘El Loco’ (the madman) but these days is more commonly referred to by Leeds fans worldwide as ‘God’. In less than two years he has taken the biggest sleeping giant in English football and not just reawoken but reinvigorated it, and the city as a whole, in a quite astonishing way. It would be great to say, especially as a Leeds fan, that I’ve got an exclusive interview with one of the most fascinating characters in world sport. But he doesn’t do one-on-one interviews – because he believes they are undemocratic – and so only speaks at official press conferences (in his native Spanish, as he speaks very little English). Phil Hay, of leading sports website The Athletic, who has covered Leeds for all of the club’s 16 years outside of the Premier League, says, ‘His argument is basically that, “Everybody should have the same opportunity to speak to me, to ask questions of me, to hear what I have to say. I shouldn’t be excluding anybody from that.” Actually, I quite like that approach – and his press conferences are the most fascinating I’ve ever sat through, without exception.’
For once, the Donald Trump making headlines isn’t the guy with weird hair who tweets in upper case from the White House toilet. Instead it’s the president's eldest son and namesake, Donald Trump Jr. The 42-year-old, known as “Don” and reportedly worth $150m, made waves on Monday with a rabble-rousing speech on the opening night of the Republican National Convention, pronouncing: “This election is church, work and school versus rioting, looting and vandalism.” Hmm. Quite the toss-up, huh? Mini-Don is increasingly viewed as an, ahem, trump card in his father’s fight for re-election in November. Trump Jr isn’t just a prolific fundraiser for the party but his ultra-conservative stance plays well with Republican heartland voters. As Roger Stone, one of Trump Snr's former confidants, put it: ”Basically, Trump Jr is the voice of undiluted Trumpism."
Everyone has, or had, a dad. Even if you never met him, or lost him early, or you are the lovechild of Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, conceived in a laboratory and shuttled as a toddler between the features desk of Spare Rib and the chain-link fence at Greenham Common, still you were fathered by someone. Some of us are dads ourselves. And what this column would like to know is, what’s so funny about that? Why has the word become shorthand for something irredeemably naff? We live in an era of dad-bashing. We’ve had dad rock; dad dancing; dad jeans; and dad bods. Of course this dad mockery is affectionate. We shouldn’t get uptight about it. But actually, we all know what putting the word “dad” in front of something signifies. It is sniggering, it is belittling, it is pejorative. Now arrives the latest indignity and, believe it or not, the trendy menswear accessory of the strange summer of 2020: the dad hat. The dad hat was once known as the baseball cap, an item I have always thought looks absolutely fine on absolutely everyone, as long as they are American — and preferably playing baseball. Well, it’s had a rebrand. It’s gone from Kevin Costner to Kendrick Lamarr, from white-bread middle-aged spread to the acme of streetstyle credibility.
I can't deny I feel just a little Covid-smug right now. As Croatia becomes the latest nation to become party to the UK Government’s surreal, global quarantine version of ''Bob's Full House' (unlucky for some – South Sudan'), I’m experiencing a priggish sensation that is punctuating my genuine concern for the hordes of holidaymakers currently dashing to airports and ferry terminals across the Balkans. Because that was so nearly me. This summer I've managed to get to France twice. Once for a short work trip to Nice which, apart from my hotel only having pink face masks, went remarkably smoothly. My second was to a friend’s summer house in Arras, Normandy. Insert your own middle-class box ticking insult right here. Fortunately, I booked my tickets home in advance, getting the ferry from Calais on Saturday morning. So while there was no hiding from the ‘welcome home’ quarantine fortnight which I’m currently half way through, at least I got home. No scrambling among the masses for a berth at the port for me. (See, told you I was smug.)
Everybody’s current favourite TV scientist, the physicist and former pop star Brian Cox, is instantly recognisable on the airwaves for his poetic commentaries full of wonder at the cosmos, littered with words like ‘amazing’ and ‘beautiful’. As I sit talking to the fresh new face of BBC science, cosmochemist, Tim Gregory, the echo of Cox is unmissable: the same vocabulary, the same contagious, rhapsodic enthusiasm, even the same Northern vowels…. “Hold on,” Gregory interrupts as I start going down the list, “I’m from the east of the Pennines, and he’s from the west.” Like Cox, he is good-looking, albeit in slightly geekier way, and his shaggy post-lockdown haircut is probably more mid-Nineties Oasis than Cox’s wispy locks. “Sure there are similarities,” he concedes, suddenly serious. “And he definitely played a part in my teenage years in encouraging me when I was at a really rough high school [in Dewsbury] where being into science was not cool.” In 2017, that encouragement would lead a then 24-year-old Gregory, who was doing a PhD at Bristol, to apply for a callout for volunteers on a forthcoming BBC Two series, Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? he had seen on Twitter.
It’s been a difficult week for us Gavins. ‘Gavin’s Got To Go’, screamed the banners. ‘Sack Gavin’, pleaded the placards. It’s not easy being a ‘Gavin’ at the best of times but when your name has, suddenly, become an example of massive incompetence, paraded on posters by angry students, things go up a notch. The name has been the bane of my life. I have thought long and hard about going by my middle name, James, but I've never quite been able to get rid of Gav. Now that I’m 50 now, I really can’t be bothered reinventing myself. It might work for Madonna, but not me. Gavin is a name that speaks volumes about me and my background – a symbol of the late 60s and early 70s, not to mention a lasting reminder of my parents’ atrocious taste in names. Meaning 'white hawk', it has noble, proud connotations: Gavin is actually the Scottish form of the Medieval name ‘Gawain’, who, as we all know, was not just one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table but probably the best of the bunch. Not that that’s ever counted for much on the rare occasions I’ve bothered trying to defend my parents’ decision.
With his shock of white hair, love of ancient Greek and tendency towards tangential speech, Stanley Johnson is very much his son’s father. Never one to answer a straight question with a straight answer, our Skype interview to mark the globetrotting environmentalist’s 80th birthday on Tuesday is characterised by the sort of subtle obfuscation for which his eldest child, the Prime Minister, is notorious. Describing the recent heatwave as “superbly awful”, he soon reveals that he has returned from the second of two holidays since the coronavirus outbreak. The first – a trip to Greece in June when his son’s Government was still advising against all but essential travel – landed him in hot water. “I only went for three days,” he insists, although at the time he admitted he was spending a week at his villa in Pelion overlooking the Aegean sea in order to “Covid-proof” it ahead of the holiday rental season. “I could have said, ‘Look I’m going to be totally incognito, but there would still have been someone who said, ‘There you are’. And then someone would say, ‘Boris’s Dad sneaks into Greece’.” In vintage Stanley style, he only attracted attention after posting a selfie of his masked arrival at Athens airport on social media, leading to an outcry from critics likening his behaviour to that of Dominic Cummings. “You’re not going to start talking about Barnard Castle are you?” he implores as I attempt to find out whether he received any fallout from Number 10. Carefully swerving the question, he insists that he absolutely “isn’t going down that route.”
It was one of the strangest espionage incidents of the late Cold War. In the rainy summer of 1987, London police arrested, charged, then abruptly released four men involved in an alleged plot to kidnap Thabo Mbeki, the future president of South Africa, from the streets of London. The ‘ANC kidnap plot’ triggered a diplomatic panic at the very top of Margaret Thatcher’s government, sparked a media firestorm and culminated in heated debates in Parliament. But it also raised questions about how one man’s gift for deception blurred the boundaries between fantasy and reality in ways that even 30 years later it is almost impossible to unpick. The bizarre tale began on the afternoon of 9 July 1987, when police arrested a man called Frank Larsen reportedly for suspicious behaviour in the gentlemen’s toilets of the Regent Palace Hotel near Piccadilly Circus. Larsen produced the warrant card of a chief constable in the Ministry of Defence police and ordered officers to release him. Realising it was a forgery, police searched his address – a rented house in Aldershot. There, according to a Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) memo written on the 13th of the month, they found ‘an explosive device, a number of passports, invoices for arms purchases/uniforms including British police uniforms and military uniforms with UN badges’. There were also ‘documents which suggest the existence of a plot to abduct members of the ANC office in London’, and mount an armed coup in the Seychelles. It was an explosive discovery, and one British authorities took seriously. South Africa’s apartheid government was known to target opponents abroad, and had been implicated in a failed coup in the Seychelles in 1981. House raids were mounted and within a week Larsen and three other men were arrested and charged with conspiracy to kidnap.
For many, it feels like life is almost back to normal: shops are open, restaurants are full, and beaches are packed. But Paul Goose, 52, knows it is not. For the past 131 days, the retired Army private has played The Last Post on his bugle every evening from his home in Barnsley, in memory of those who have died that day from Covid-19. He says he won’t stop until there are no more victims of Covid in the UK. Goose started playing the bugle call on March 29, in memory of a former colleague who had died, unrelated to coronavirus. “I learnt my old Regimental Sergeant Major had passed away that morning," says Goose. “I decided I wanted to play the Last Post for him on Facebook.” The video received a swell of comments, leading Goose to realise that the tune could help people to grieve during the pandemic. From that day on, he has performed The Last Post at 8pm. In live streams, which you can watch on his Facebook page, Goose begins by saying some word of thanks to keyworkers, before playing the call, which is normally associated with Remembrance Day ceremonies in Commonwealth countries.
Phillip Witcomb believes there will be a film made of his life one day. ‘It’s amazing, amazing…’ he says of his 55 years, shaking his head in disbelief. ‘It’d make a fantastic movie, don’t you think?’ He can see it now: part espionage caper, part globe-trotting crime thriller, part family saga with several twists, mostly tragedy but with a peaceful end for its hero, packed with violence, glamour, drugs, and a small digression into Spanish golf-course design. Basically, solid-gold blockbuster magic. The man at the centre of that story – a gregarious, occasionally obtuse and short-tempered, but marvellously moustachioed presence on my Zoom screen – goes by two names. The first, Phillip Robert Charles Witcomb, comes from his adoptive father, Pat, who was an MI6 agent working undercover as a businessman. This is his everyday moniker, and it is as Phillip Witcomb that he sells hyperrealist paintings, mainly depicting the area around his home in Majorca, where he now lives with his second wife, Julie, two spaniels, four tortoises and four goldfish. The other, Roberto Sendoya Escobar, comes from his biological father, Pablo, who was the most notorious drug lord and narco-terrorist that ever lived, arguably the richest criminal of all time, inflicter of decades-long horrors from which Colombia is still recovering, and inspiration for countless films, documentaries and dramas – among them Netflix’s Narcos. This is his birth name, and it is as Roberto Sendoya Escobar he has written a memoir, First Born: Son of Escobar, telling the extraordinary tale of how those two identities came to collide. ‘I thought about [writing it under Witcomb], but my publishers soon put me straight on that,’ he says, ‘they’re a business, I get it.’ At their request, I’ll refer to him as Roberto from now on.