A weeklong electronic journal.
Dec. 3 1998 3:30 AM


       They say that in New York the temperature was in the 60s when they put up the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center today. They say that in the Northeast of the United States this has been the warmest year ever, warmer even than 1921, which broke all previous records. God, how I envy the people over there! Here in London the weather has been vilely cold and damp for as many days as I can remember, and there is no suggestion that it is ever going to get any better. A professor at Birmingham University, Dr. John Thornes, has studied the weather forecasts of the television meteorologists and has announced that they get them right less than half of the time. Anyone, he explains, can do much better than that by simply predicting that tomorrow's weather will be exactly the same as today's. If you do that, you achieve an accuracy rate of about 77 percent. On that principle, the present disgusting weather in London may very well go on forever.
       Because of this, I have hardly left the house at all this week and have spent practically all my time moping in front of my Macintosh computer, occasionally glancing through the window to see a new shriveled, dead quince fall off one of the three quince trees that my wife once planted outside. In previous years, the nice woman in the house opposite had always picked the quinces when they were ripe to make them into quince jelly and quince jam, and then presented us with several jars of the delicious stuff. But this year she has just let the quinces rot. I expect that she, too, has been depressed by the weather.
       I mention that I have a Macintosh computer because it is important in this class-ridden country to make it clear where one stands in the social hierarchy. Having a Macintosh reveals that one is somewhere near the top. To stress this point, I have just purchased a second Macintosh, an iMac, for use by my new assistant, who comes in three times a week to read through the international papers on the Web for my Slate column of that name. She can't read Japanese or Arabic or Russian or Finnish any better than I can, but I feel that her mere presence here in my basement in front of the iMac significantly enhances my social status.
       In the meantime, I have been writing a 3,000 word essay for a new Penguin book about journalism that is being edited by a friend of mine. Various journalists were given different aspects of our wretched trade to pronounce upon, and my brief was to write about "how to survive" in it. I agreed to do so without realizing how insulting this proposal actually was. The clear implication is that there is some reason other than merit for why I have been in work for so long and, on thinking about it, I fear that that there may be.
       The most obvious reason that springs to mind is nepotism. I don't think I have ever got a job in my life except through some family contact or other; and if I am still getting free-lance work now at the age of almost 59, this is probably because one or two of the callow young men I once employed as contributors to the Spectator when I edited it many years ago (thanks to my godmother's son having bought it) are now gray-haired editors of national newspapers and take a perverse pleasure in patronizing their former patron.
       Whatever the reason, I find that I now have far too much work to do. My insecurity as a free-lance journalist means I find it hard to turn down any offer that is made to me, and by the end of Friday I will have written 15 pieces this week--the Penguin thing, five columns for the conservative Daily Telegraph, one for the liberal Guardian, one restaurant review for the Independent on Sunday, and two "International Papers" columns and five "Diary" entries for Slate. This is something you should understand about British journalists. We may be drunk and irresponsible, in the manner beautifully described by Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities, but we are, in our odd way, extremely hard-working.
       No time, therefore, to do any Christmas shopping except by mail order or in cyberspace, though I have already shopped for my grandchildren in New York, buying them the most old-fashioned toys I could find. Here, as in America, the most popular toy by far this Christmas is the Furby, which is creating long queues at the major London stores. Having read the manufacturer's promotional material and a description of it in Slate's "Culturebox," I am certain that I have done the right thing by investing instead in a couple of completely noninteractive teddy bears, which don't even know how to burp.

Alexander Chancellor writes "International Papers" for Slate.