Category Archives: Column

The Sunday Times: How it feels to … come face to face with Alesha MacPhail’s murderer

The evidence was harrowing. Details emerged in court that were so horrendous, I wished I had never heard them. I worried I was failing at my job because when it came to writing the news story, I couldn’t bring myself to repeat them. At times, people in the public gallery watching the trial held their heads in their hands and wept. Only one person seemed unaffected by the horror, and that was the boy in the dock.

It was last July when I first started covering the murder of six-year-old Alesha MacPhail. Her brutalised body had been discovered in woodland on the Scottish island of Bute, a day after she had gone missing from her bed. It seemed impossible that something so savage had taken place somewhere so gentle; on a tiny island where locals leave their doors unlocked and seals flop on mossy rocks by silver waves.

The island was on edge when I arrived. Police were warning locals to “be vigilant and look after each other”, as rumours spread. There was some nasty, unfounded speculation that Syrian refugees who had been relocated to the island might somehow be responsible for the little girl’s death, while others whispered that police had been checking ferry passengers and wondered about strange men from out of town.


Police forensic teams scour the Isle of Bute

It was shocking when we heard that a local 16-year-old boy had been arrested. I went to Greenock Sheriff Court to hear the charges read. When we heard these charges were rape and murder, I felt sick.

I returned seven months later to cover Aaron Campbell’s trial at the High Court in Glasgow. I don’t know what kind of person I expected to see, but it wasn’t the child standing in the dock. A teenage boy dressed in a smart, fashionable, grey check suit — an outfit I would later learn he had worn to his school prom. He had smooth, milky skin and neat black hair, which he occasionally swept back from his face.


The Sunday Times Column: In defence of the right to be offended


Are people more easily offended now, or just more vocal about it? Either way, we’re more concerned about causing offence than we’ve ever been. Accompanying universal wails of, “I’m offended”, there’s a new social etiquette obsessed with pandering to such sensitivities, an enforced politeness intent on turning the whole world into a “safe space”.

Just take the latest issue of The Good Schools Guide. It warns parents not to boast about their children’s exam results on Facebook, for fear that kids who have done less well will be upset. Or what about guidelines for office life that warn staff against such obscene acts as warming up sausage rolls in communal microwaves, in case people of different religions are affronted?

The Oxford University Press warns writers not to mention pork or pigs in schoolbooks to “avoid offending Muslims or Jews”. Meanwhile, campuses zealously ban speakers whose ideas might trouble students.

The main argument against such censorship is one favouring free speech, which I support. But there is another issue: I want to defend being offended, because being offended can be good for us.

I love being offended. It doesn’t happen often, but, oh, when it does! That guttural shock. The rising bile in my stomach. It’s exhilarating. Doesn’t everyone, secretly, enjoy being offended just a bit? We relish the shared sense of outrage so much so that content designed to anger people is the most likely to go viral online.

In the short term, learning to handle offence, rather than avoid it, can reap rewards. It makes us resilient and adept at coping when things don’t go our way. This approach is embraced by a new American self-help book, F*** Feelings, which suggests we should welcome anger rather than dodge it. After all, life is filled with hurt and negative feelings. Why try to avoid them? In the long term, there are other reasons to embrace offence, too.

The Sunday Times Column: design your own perfume? Welcome to my personal hell.


Ihave a really limited skill set. There are fewer than four things I am good at, and one of those is playing Twister. I was a nightmare for the careers adviser at school. Thank goodness I stumbled upon journalism when I did.

I am no Renaissance woman — I’d much rather outsource my life. If I could afford to pay professionals to do everything for me, I would. Which is why I don’t understand why we’re all sold on this new DIY culture that presents itself as some kind of luxury. It’s not.

It started with the promise that you could personalise everything: your diet, your Twitter profile, your tattoos, your shampoo. Then things became even more personal — items were not just bespoke, but individually “curated” by you. So now companies allow you to design your own cupcakes, with a frosting of your choice — sparkly blue or orange? — or mix your own perfume combining all your favourite smells.

In the culinary world, it’s not only Burger King that allows you to Have It Your Way; proper restaurants are getting in on the trend, letting you cook things yourself, at your table, and styling the menu to suit you. You can design personalised pizzas, tailor-make stir fries and create your own frozen yoghurts.


The Sunday Times magazine column: I’m in love with my flatmate



I am in love with my flatmate. Even as first-world problems go, I appreciate that this is not exactly catastrophic. My situation is up there with “Oh dear, Uber has got a surge on,” or “I’m in the mood for a Polynesian tonight, but my favourite one isn’t open.” Still, I am in love. And I need to move out.

I should have seen it coming. I’d been nursing a crush on T for years. I fancied him from the moment we met, although at first it was only in the same low-level way I fancy all slightly odd, blond men. Then T had a room going, and I needed a place, so me and my two suitcases moved in. (Because all my stuff is still in storage, while I pretend that one day, I might actually buy a flat.)

We celebrated by going out dancing at a Japanese bar, falling home, collapsing into my bed, then waking up spooning platonically.

After that, the tension was gone. So now, we wander around the flat in our underwear, nursing problems and hangovers, talking about his girlfriends while I epilate my legs.

Because we’re both at home all day, we invent games. We see who can grab the most cappuccinos from Waitrose. We take mini-breaks funded by Airbnb-ing the flat, spending weekends in the country, drinking romantic, fireside G&Ts

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The Sunday Times magazine column: Holiday!

It is a universally acknowledged truth that everyone would live like a millionaire rock star if they could. Where holidays are concerned, my friends take this dictum to heart. In their real lives, they may be borderline bankrupt, lugging student loans, worrying if they’ll make the rent, or even be working next week. But when we go away, we act like the Rich Kids of Instagram.

We want to stay in designer lofts with circular beds and seafront penthouses with surroundsound systems. We want to get picked up at airports by pink limos and driven to villas with an infinity pool, crowded with blow-up dolphins. We want not just minibars, but bespoke breakfast baskets and chi-chi cocktails, delivered to our sun loungers by Chippendale-esque staff. We want log fires in ski season, and pools on the roof for city summers. We want swim-up rooms, swim-up bars, swim-up nightclubs. Our dream holiday is a 1980s music video starring George Michael on Duran Duran’s yacht.

My friend W and I are the worst (or best) at this. Last year we took a holiday in Berlin’s nhow hotel, where your room comes complete with electric guitars, which we played while dancing on a bed, necking champagne until we felt sick. The year before, W insisted we stayed in a hotel because it was on a volcano with its own nightclub. This year he has demanded a villa in Gran Canaria with a hot tub, even though he’s 5K in debt.

We are like this partly because we’re a generation of mature travellers with childish tastes. Unlike our grandparents, who watched the first hotel chain, Holiday Inn, open in 1952, we are children of cheap travel: confident, globe-hopping. We may have grown up in families content with a week in the Costa del Sol, but we expect at least a fortnight in Thailand and a few city breaks a year.

Meanwhile, as our lives are saturated with cheap flights, bucket lists of dream destinations and Instagrammed beaches, it’s no wonder we expect to take holidays straight off glossy travel-magazine pages. We want to travel to jetset locations: Christmas in Cambodia, the new year in Goa, weekends clubbing in Berlin. I might settle for a week caravanning in Somerset but only if we’re glamping at Glastonbury in an Airstream.

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The Sunday Times travel: Groucho-on-sea


Groucho Marx said he’d refuse to join any club that would have him as a member. But the Groucho Club has never let me join, so I’m always desperate to go: I sneak in whenever I get the chance, hoping to re-create its most notorious nights.

Who wouldn’t want to drink in the club where Julie Burchill claims Toby Young had his way with a Princess Diana impersonator in the toilets; where Rowland Rivron broke his hand cycling down the stairs, wrecked on pisco sours; where, on one epic night, Keith Allen assembled a band from the boozers, with Moby on piano, Mick Jones singing Clash songs, and Coldplay and New Order on backing vocals?

The social alchemist who whipped up this hedonistic maelstrom was Mary-Lou Sturridge. The Groucho’s godmother, she was instrumental in the 1980s and 1990s in helping its founder, Anthony Mackintosh, turn the club into an era-defining melting pot that changed the face of London’s social scene.

Mary-Lou left when the club was sold to its current owners, Graphite Capital. Among the regulars, there are murmurings that it hasn’t been the same since — that it has (whisper
it) cleaned up its act.

Perhaps Sturridge has, too. She tells me it’s not that she got bored of staying up until 5am five nights a week, but thought: “Why not stay up until 5am just two nights a week instead?” Which hints at the kind of weekend retreat she hopes her new project will become. For now, with investment from Mackintosh, she has opened the Seaside Boarding House, in Dorset.

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The Sunday Times magazine column: dating for millionaires



Berkeley International is the kind of posh dating agency that advertises at the back of Tatler. It is a personal matchmaking service that costs a minimum of £10,000 a year and is described as “matchmaker to millionaires”. I’m not sure what they want with me.

It turns out that, having read my column about Tinder, they reckon they can do something for my love life where technology has failed. They will find me The One. Sure, I say. Then immediately regret it.

Berkeley International invites me to meet its CEO and head matchmaker, Mairead Malloy, at Home House (a posh members’ club in Marylebone). She is going to interview me, then find me potential dates, which she does not do by algorithm but intuition, literally stopping people she finds in the street.

I go to meet Mairead straight from a weekend in the country, so I am wearing ripped jeans and muddy tennis shoes. At Home House, they look me up and down and make me wait in reception.

Mairead is a very good-looking, chatty Irish woman who immediately starts interrogating me about my love life. “Your longest relationship?” Five years. “What happened?” He drank too much. “Do you not like a drink?” Yeah, but… “Are you still hung up on him?” No. “I think you’re hung up on him.” No, I’m not.

“Mairead wants to know what I am looking for. I tell her someone really, really funny. I don’t care what he looks like, although it’d be great if he lived in Manhattan”
Mairead wants to know what I am looking for. I tell her someone really, really funny. I don’t care what he looks like, or how old he is. Although, possibly, it would be great if he read newspapers, if he had an interesting job and lived in Manhattan. Ideally, the editor of The New York Times. She agrees I’d be better with someone foreign, “because British men can be quite conservative”.

She has clients of all ages. The youngest is 18. Why would young men bother with a dating agency? “To meet the right kind of girls,” she says. Yuck. And I think, again, this may not be my shtick.


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