Sunday, February 25

Digested week: Teslas strip BMW drivers of proud title of worst on road | emma brockes


A collective sigh of relief on Monday as news is confirmed that Emmanuel Macron has been re-elected as president of France, seeing off a threat of from the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, and, shortly afterwards, tomato-throwing crowds in a suburb of Paris. Macron, who captured 58.6% of the vote, took his first post-election walkabout and was met with a barrage of squishy missiles, causing his security detail to unleash an Inspector Gadget-style device, after squealing the heads-up: “Projectile! ” (It might not have been a squeal.)

The whole thing could’ve been a scene from James Bond, remarked commentators, although deployment of the death brolly has more of a Mr Bean ring to it. The gadget, named the ParaPactum and manufactured in France by Le Parapluie de Cherbourg, was invented in 2011 and is intended, in the words of its makers, for the “protection des hautes personnalités”, including the president of the republic. It weighs more than twice a regular umbrella, is made of Kevlar, costs €10,000 (£8,400), and when brandished can ward off knife, dog, acid and fruit attacks. It’s also waterproof.

Outside of France, the ParaPactum has been seen in the hands of protection officers walking alongside Vladimir Putin, and lest an umbrella should seem an insufficiently rugged piece of kit, comes in a special case that looks like it was made for a sniper. Pure jingoism, this, but given the long, almost spiritual relationship between the British people and their umbrellas, one imagines no modern technology is necessary for the average British protection officer to weaponise a standard-issue model with a wooden handle – cracked over-the -head, Grandma Giles-style.

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Girls don’t like physics because it entails “hard maths” is a statement I find simultaneously appalling and also identify with. I don’t like hard maths, or any maths, but that is not, obviously, because I’m a girl. Mid-week, the government’s social mobility commissioner chose to frame the low numbers of girls relative to boys taking physics A-Level in terms available only to those who’ve given the matter exactly seven minutes thought. Appearing before the Commons science and technology committee, Katharine Birbalsingh pulled her words from her brain to the effect that, “physics is n’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it, they don’t like it.” Birbalsingh is headteacher at a school in Wembley where girls take physics A-Level at an even lower rate than the national average. Pressed to expand on her point, she took up a bigger shovel and resumed digging, continuing: “I just think they do n’t like it. There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think they would rather not do. The research generally … just says that’s a natural thing.” Per Birbalsingh’s example, a facility for evolutionary biology is not a girl’s best friend, either.


On the other hand, Brownies are learning to code, which is great, although it won’t rescue me from the chill of my Brownie pack memories. The acquisition of badges left me so defeated I graduated from Wendover Second pack with a single badge (the hostess badge). Even then, I never met the target of learning to make a cup of tea – my mother, scandalously, signing the form to say she’d witnessed the event when she’d done no such thing. I hated Brownies, the uniform, the singing, the “mission”, whatever that was; the feral pack from Milton Keynes with whom we were made to go on camp. And although I rose to the heady height of Seconder in Gnomes, it never gave me any joy. You’d think it would be impossible to fail a Brownie badge, but I did, over-reaching one Thursday night in the direction of the Collectors Badge. Other Brownies brought in shells, and dolls, and rocks. I brought in my collection of lolly sticks, washed and dried, and the look on the face of Tawny Owl has never fully left me. Twist me and turn me and show me the elf…

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Two touching stories of the ultra-elderly this week, one about the French nun Sister Andrew, who became, at 118, the oldest person in the world after the death earlier in the week of 119-year-old Kane Tanaka fromJapan. Sister Andrew lived through the Spanish flu of 1918 and in January last year she became the oldest known survivor of Covid-19. She told reporters this week she drinks a glass of wine every day, while Tanaka, shortly before her death de ella, cheerfully told visitors she ascribed her great longevity to “being myself”, and her love of eating chocolate and drinking Coke. Given the mold these stories tend to take, it’s amazing neither of them smoked 40 a day or lived exclusively on a diet of bacon.

Fascination inspired by the extremely old may lessen as their numbers increase. Japan has the oldest population in the world, with an average life span of 87.7 for women and 81.6 for men, and with 86,000 people currently over the age of 100. The thought of carrying on for 110-plus years, even in the apparently sprightly guise of Sister Andrew and the late Japanese record-holder, fills one with existential dread, particularly in the US where the logistics of funding a thirty-plus-year retirement are truly terrifying. If 50 is the new 40, and 70 the new 60, one awaits, with weary resignation, the advent of 90-plus as a marketing demographic, with all the attendant expectations of jauntiness.


In the old days, it was BMW drivers who were reliably the worst on the road. Times change. We have a rental car this week and it’s noticeable that every time someone cuts in front, carves us up, or glides up the hard shoulder to jump the line, it’s more often than not the same car. Mercedes drivers are arrogant but rule-abiding. The gentle sorts in a Subaru always give way. A Honda Accord might drift over its lane-markings, but won’t give you any serious trouble. It’s Tesla drivers – on the road, on the internet, in real and in notional form – who are the absolute horror show, a brand affiliation that, no one needs reminding this week, goes all the way to the top.

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Sajid Javid distracts the opposition with his floury baps. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA
'I'd be thrilled to meet you, too!'
‘I’d be thrilled to meet you, too!’ Photograph: Hannah McKay/AFP/Getty Images

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