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Following my recommendation of a Cornish pasty and a can of Diet Coke on a bench at King’s Cross station as a suitable St Valentine’s dinner, I have received several alternative suggestions for venues, such as the restaurant at Spean Bridge station on the line to Fort William, Scotland, and the oyster bar at Grand Central in New York.

I have never been to the former, although I might have glimpsed it once when I went to Fort William to stay at Inverlochy Castle, a hotel that is supposedly the epitome of Scottish luxury, which, given the legendary tightness of the Scots, might sound like an oxymoron.

As for the oyster bar at Grand Central, which I have been to, I admit the station is one of the most splendid interiors of modern time. The only trouble is the obvious association of the oyster as an aphrodisiac which might send a presumptuous message to the girl. And would she even enjoy slurping up a slimy lump that is still on the move and breathing its last breath? How anti-climatic it would be if she were to pass on the oyster and opt for the much duller plate of smoked salmon or prawn cocktail? Much simpler to leave food out of it.

My main point is to appreciate utilitarian spaces such as King’s Cross, with its draughty promise of yet draughtier destinations, without the slightest hint of anything fancy, thereby creating a real juxtaposition of ostensible dullness and real cerebral excitement that never fails to intensify our sense of romance.

I’m living in Brooklyn. Who in Brooklyn originated the floral arrangement you described?

It is extraordinary that the best imitators of old Dutch flower arrangements in paintings should be found in Brooklyn, and more extraordinarily on Van Dyke Street. The shop is called Saipua, which sounds Asian but is actually Finnish. So there you have it: one of those marvellous liquorice allsorts in life that is the stuff of serendipities. If I were a billionaire, I would call them twice a week to deliver their bouquets to my home in Hong Kong, an Atacama of decorative charm.

How long do you think it will take for China to replace the US as the world’s number one superpower, and do you think that Chinese culture will impact the west as American culture has impacted the east?

As this is the Financial Times, I calculated that if the US grows at an average of 2 per cent per annum and China 5 per cent per annum, then China would still need about 75 years to catch up the US in terms of GDP per capita [I sincerely hope Martin Wolf doesn’t read this – Ed.]. Of course this sole economic measure is not the only factor, but it is a telling indicator. I argued at an Oxford Union debate last year for a similar timeframe with the addition of other factors, mainly demographic, environmental and political.

The truth is that there are too many extraneous interactions in the world for us to predict the future. Our history is strewn with surprises, and I am constantly astonished by the turn of events that are characterised either by freak incidents or what Barbara Tuchman called “the march of folly”, a reminder that we humans never seem to learn from our mistakes. The course of history has always deflected from the obvious and the proposition that China is going to overtake the US is too obvious.

I also observe that, in the past, superpowers invariably grew through conquests from a minority overwhelming a majority – the Roman, Ottoman and British empires being clear examples. And the US, too, except her masses grew from immigration rather than conquest. Therefore, I ask what would it take for China, which is already vast, to become even more vast?

As for the canard of comparing east and west, spoiled by the Kipling ditty that “never the twain shall meet”, globalisation has brought the distinction much closer. China’s history in the 20th century has been sculpted by almost all western precepts, viz, democracy and republicanism, capitalism and Marxism. So one must be careful in regurgitating the ancient Chinese culture of Confucianism and 4,000 years of successive dynastic empires in today’s context. The truth is modern China is already intellectually much more westernised than one might imagine. It is only in humour that I still detect a gulf that has not closed up too much.


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