Blog Number 40 [Friday, 24th July 2020]. Words. Words. Words.
I lay awake last night and thought of all the words that have been let loose into the world since a new virus escaped from a Chinese wet food market and hitched a ride on another species. That was officially in December 2019 but almost certainly much earlier. It was fortuitously a good place for a virus bent on conquering the world. A totalitarian state where any warnings of a new disease were seen as a betrayal. A major festival, the Chinese New Year, an excellent breeding ground for transmission. A world that had grown complacent as other viruses had come and gone or been seen here in the West as a localised problem, “the Chinese virus” or “kung flu” as some idiot had said. Gradually, inexorably, the virus spread, sneakily too, for, as we learned rather late in the day, it could be transmitted asymptomatically and pre-symptomatically. And then there were the so-called “superspreaders,” an unfortunate term with implications of agency and extra-human powers like the Joker or Batman or other comic supervillain. Nothing comic about this virus. And with it has come a deluge of words flooding all the myriad of communication channels we have at our fingertips. People doing what I am doing now, hitting the keys on their personal computers or their phones or other devices and spreading an aerosol of verbal droplets everywhere, viral transmission as it is too appropriately called. To what end, I wondered, late into the night. What’s the point? Why bother?
M was sleeping quietly. I gently nudged her. No response. I sighed loudly and pulled the duvet. A slight stirring, no more. A more insistent nudge and she woke.
‘Are you awake?’ I asked.
‘I am now.’
‘I have been wondering about my blog.’
‘Okay.’ To give M credit she never complains when I wake her.
‘What about it?’
‘I’m thinking of stopping it. What do you think?’
A pause. I had imagined she would say something like, ‘But you know it’s very good and people like it’. Instead, she said,
‘It’s up to you really. After all, it’s just a blog.’
This is undoubtedly true but then everything is ‘just’ something. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is just a painting or Beethoven’s Fifth is just a piece of music. I don’t say this though as it might seem a trifle grandiose.
‘But you know it’s very good and people like it,’ said M.
A fraction earlier that might have been a comfort.
‘They seem to like yours better. You got more emails. You could write the blog from now on if you like.’
A sigh. ‘Rest assured. I have absolutely no intention of writing another blog. In fact, I can scarcely remember writing that one.’
‘You know M,’ I continued now in full flow, ‘I was lying awake thinking of all the words being let loose on this globalised world and also thinking that I have nothing special to add and what I had written was really so much silly nonsense and I have bashed Boris and mauled Mattie and clocked Cummings and mocked Rishi and still they are all there doing terrible things, and then I…’
I went on in this vein for quite a while, drawing myself deeper into the familiar well of negative thinking until I ran out of steam. I looked over to M. No response. She’d slipped back into sleep, which just confirmed me in my belief that everything I had to say had been utterly of no consequence. That’s it, I decided. Enough of this blogging lark. It keeps me awake and sends everyone else [M] to sleep. But then, as M is wont to say, things will look different in the morning. Will they?
After 4 months of lockdown, 40 blogs and another 6 mini-blogs that were not all that mini, it’s time for a break, a pause in proceedings. I know, I know, you will be bereft. Or maybe the word is relieved. I will sign off with the words of the young, beautiful [but twitchy] Mick Jagger, “This could be the last time, this could be the last time, baby, I don’t know.”
1965. The Ed Sullivan Show. The Stones, singing The Last Time. How young they look!
I am trying to be magnanimous. Blogs are democratic; anyone can write a blog. And M’s blog is perfectly fine in its way. I don’t think she should call it “The Blog” though. That sort of implies that hers is the definitive one, casting all others into the shade. As to her telling the “unvarnished truth,” all I can say is that if it were a table, it would be gleaming.
I am a bit miffed that people I took to be my good friends have sent emails in support of M’s blog, even suggesting [Paddy] that I should suspend mine in favour of hers and [Max] that I learned my craft from M when nothing could be further from the truth. I accept that Colin has from the start lauded M and will continue to do so whatever I write. And Peter, your suggestion of a two column blog assumes a skill with Word that frankly neither of us possess. The fact that M’s first blog garnered twice as many emails as mine is a bit of a blow but then it is her first blog and people like to encourage ingenues, don’t they?
My old friend, John C, has accused me of too much “Boris-bashing”. I plead guilty, M’Lud. So I will refrain from more, for the time being at least. For those who can’t do without, I will simply refer you to two far more accomplished Boris-bashers than I.
It’s been a long time since I mentioned our breadmaker. If you recall I was waiting for it to trip us up and produce some squashed up piece of barely risen dough and pass it off as bread. But, credit where it’s due, it hasn’t. Every loaf is spot on. It’s a blessing. I mention this to M.
‘The breadmaker’s been a good buy, hasn’t it? It just never fails.’
This seemed an anodyne remark to me but apparently not.
‘You do know that someone has to measure out the yeast and flour and get the right amount of water put it into the machine and remember to do it at least 5 hours before the bread is needed?’
‘Er, yes, I suppose I do.’
‘I just thought I’d mention it. In case you’d forgotten that bit.’
The lockdown gets to all of us one way or another.
We have now bought an airfryer, a machine that cooks chips, fresh or frozen, via hot air. According to our friends, Peter and Lesley, it makes great chips and is better for our health. Like the breadmaker it is black and bulbous. We have placed the two of them side by side on the top of small kitchen cupboard we have also bought just for them. I am looking at them now, two quiet machines waiting to be called into action. I wonder if they will get on. Of course I don’t really. Still, there is something about their impassivity, an air of brooding menace. Hmm, the lockdown does get to us all one way or another.
This brings me to the subject of robots. They are big in Japan it seems where they are even being employed to take lessons in primary schools. After a lesson, one little child rushed to give the ‘teacher’ a hug. Some of you may be repulsed by that. Not me. I am all in favour of robots. In fact, if and when I find myself eking out my twilight years in a care home, surrounded, I hope, by Mattie’s ‘ring of steel,’ I want a robot to take care of me. For a robot cannot be infected, never gets tired, can bring perfect cups of tea, can sing songs, play music, play games, and answer stupid questions without getting bored or upset. Best of all she/he will listen to my witless witterings without batting an eyelid, assuming she/he has eyelids. You might think that I as a psychologist would be in favour of real people. Generally I am. As this lockdown has shown, disembodied conversations are nothing like meeting up with your friends. A few days ago we had coffee in Richard and Liz’s lovely garden under their newly acquired gazebo. It was like the sensation of taking your first sip of cool water after a long thirst. Just great to be able to talk easily without the stuttering hesitations and forced repetitions of a Zoom call. In a real place, with real people, you can pick up the social cues and engage in quiet side conversations while others are speaking. The brain has primed us for actual human contact and the myriad of subtle perceptions and emotions that go with it. A robot is always going to be a mimic, not the real thing. It is not either-or though, is it? Robots and humans can and do work together. As to Blade Runner-type fantasies of sci-fi movies, of androids so human-like the difference cannot be detected, we’ll see. Or rather we won’t if we can’t tell the difference.
Wytham Woods has reopened! Hooray! There are restrictions. You have to have a permit and you have to book a slot, morning or afternoon on either Friday, Saturday or Sunday. M and I went there this morning. Only the main gate is open and we had to park the car on the field beside Wytham Village Hall and then walk up the hill. This brought back memories as it was the site of a notorious student party in the 1960s. In a change from Vicars and Tarts, we decided upon Stripes as the theme but we hadn’t anticipated that one of number – no names, no pack-drill – would choose to turn up naked, apart from a discreet loin cloth, with black stripes painted all over his body. His girlfriend hadn’t anticipated that either and it brought their relationship to a swift end. There was also the incident with the piano lid and the glasses but probably best not go into that. Ah those golden days!
Our walk was going to be a short walk, just an hour, to revisit a few old haunts. As I am more familiar with the woods, I was to be the guide. It didn’t turn out quite as smoothly as I had hoped. M was not impressed by the hard slog up the hill to the main entrance especially as I took the longer route along the path by the side of the road.
‘You said it was hardly any distance,’ she said. ‘Yet it’s taken us 15 minutes just to get to the gate.’
‘That’s not long really.’
‘No? That’s quarter of an hour in case you didn’t know.’
‘I do know what 15 minutes is.’
‘You said we were going for an hour’s walk. We have to return the same way. So by my calculation we have done half the walk before we get into the woods.’
‘It will be quicker going back. It’s downhill. We can take the road. We can run.’
‘Yes,’ said M, ‘a good plan. I always like to end a long tiring walk with a swift run.’
My plan was to walk up the field, turn left on Singing Way, and then right through the beech copse to where there’s a view of Farmoor reservoir and head down and back via the Duck Pond. As my daughter Kate knows, I have on more than one occasion failed to find the Duck Pond. It is hidden deep in the midst of the forest. Not obvious from the main ride. But I was confident. Last time when I had failed to find it, I had realised where I had gone wrong. I had to take the first rather than the second track on the right into the woods. This time we would take the first track and that is what we did. Only it took us in a long loop back to the main ride.
‘Perhaps I’d better look at the map,’ I said.
‘You have a map?’
‘Yes. I don’t really need it. Well, mostly anyway.’
I got out the small sketch map that comes with the permit. The trouble was I didn’t know exactly where we were. I turned it about a bit but that didn’t really help.
‘There’s a better map now,’ I said. Unwisely.
‘Oh good. Let’s look at that.’
‘I left it at home.’
There was a silence. What writers like to call a brooding silence.
Still, it may have taken us two hours not one and we didn’t find the Duck Pond but we both agreed it was lovely to be in Wytham Woods again. In case you are wondering, we didn’t sprint down the road at the end. But I think you knew that already.
The comedian Peter Kay, in his element at The Bolton Albert Halls, reducing his audience to paroxysms of helpless laughter.
You might have noticed the change of title of my blog. More than 100 days have passed since lockdown began. Given that M and I started locking down on the 16 March, a week before the government sprang into belated action, we are 12 days into the next hundred days. Who knows how many more there will be after that? The more literal minded of you [Evelyn, Tim] objected to my calling it solitude given the presence of M, who some have unaccountably deemed the star of my blog. Admittedly, M and I can spend several hours in different rooms sometimes, as now, separated by two storeys and so out of contact. M or I will sometimes attempt to converse by shouting loudly but this tends to lead to confusion, viz.
‘John, can you…[indecipherable]…Sainsburys order?’
‘Sorry, I can’t hear you. I’m coming down.’
‘I’m coming up.’
We meet halfway, each exasperated with the other, and a rather strained conversation ensues. If you live alone, at least you are spared these sort of exchanges. I accept that, sometimes in the silence of complete solitude, you might yearn for any conversation even strained ones. Zoom calls are all very well but the voices are disembodied and on Zoom, especially with multiple participants, conversation rarely flows. Like last night at the virtual Rose and Crown:
[Tim] What do people think of the article on cancel culture?
[Richard] What is…[Bill] Do you mean J K…[John] What article are you…[Paddy]…in the FT?
Tim repeats the question speaking loudly drowning out all the others. Unusually there’s complete silence for two seconds. Then another fragmented overlap of voices. Another silence. [Chris quickly jumps in] Has anyone read the article apart from Tim?
No one has.
[Chris] Mind you, that’s never stopped us discussing things before.
Tim agrees to email the article to everyone and being Tim, he does it there and then while the rest of us try to talk sensibly about testing. Bill tells us, as he did last week, about something called cellular immunity which I again fail to understand. I put this down to his being well into his second glass of red wine though it is more likely my fast deteriorating brain. No, Zoom or its equivalent is no substitute for a real life conversation. And the disembodied voices in phone calls or on the radio are not the same either. My daughter Kate has Lola for a companion but her conversation is limited to meows and it is usually [always] when she wants something [food]. So as a fair-minded person I have amended the title.
This is all somewhat of a digression. I had set out to write about fiction. This is because the University regularly and optimistically sends me a magazine called Oxford Philosophy and in it there’s an article on fiction. I started reading it though immediately ran into some difficulty. The second sentence reads thus: Our ability to understand fictions is philosophically perplexing because, like the contents of assertions, the contents are often non-literally conveyed. Hmm. Later the author claims she is puzzled by the existence and nature of fictional entities. She gives the example of Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse and concludes there is no woman such as Austen describes Emma as being. This raises the problem of what kind of entity Emma Woodhouse be, if indeed, such an entity exists. Of course it does. If you are an Oxford Philosopher anyway.
That triggered a memory. In November 1963 having applied to the Queen’s College, Oxford to read Psychology and Philosophy I was interviewed by two ancient philosophy dons [well, they seemed ancient to me]. I was politely asked if I would consider a hypothetical situation. Equally politely I agreed to do so. I was to discover that hypothetical situations are dearly loved by Oxford philosophers. ‘If you see a man attack and kill another man in the street,’ I was asked, ‘can you be absolutely sure he is guilty of the deed?’ Even at the callow age of 17 I knew that the answer could not possibly be yes. I waffled a bit, concluding that it might have been a drug-induced hallucination though I hastened to assure them that I had never taken any such drugs. Once I had started on my degree I found that Oxford philosophers liked to question absolutely everything. What is truth? What is fiction? Frankly, unless you were of a certain frame of mind, it was a tedious business. The title of J L Austin’s book, How To Do Things With Words, gave the game away. Doing clever things with words was not my idea of what philosophy should be about. What I wanted was to eavesdrop on the conversations that Sartre and de Beauvoir were having on existentialism in Les Deux Magots on the left bank of the Seine. Or so I thought. When I eventually got around to reading Sartre, I found it was a tedious business too, if in a different way. Maybe philosophy was just not for me. It seems Oxford philosophy hasn’t changed much in the intervening decades. You still have to be clever with words. However, I recall one bright moment in the morass of words and meanings I struggled with and that was another book by J L Austin. It was Austin’s choice of title, Sense and Sensibilia, that brought a smile to my lips though as I recall there were not many laughs in the book after that.
Fiction takes me for some reason to our not-so-great leader. In the House of Commons this week the PM flailed away under Keir Starmer’s forensic questioning. It’s an unequal contest. Bojo was like a tired and wounded bull being tormented by a calm and confident matador. Whichever way he turned, the matador was there flicking his cloak and brandishing his sword. This week Bojo’s startlingly inept statement that care homes “didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have” was subject to the Starmer’s inquisition. Care home staff are up in arms, Starmer said, and being a QC, he provided actual quotes. Would the Prime Minister like to apologise to the staff of care homes? After all they were not responsible for the NHS unloading so many patients on them who were untested for the coronavirus. Or for the dearth of proper protection equipment. No, Bojo wouldn’t for he doesn’t do apologies. Why not? Everyone makes mistakes and to make a simple apology could only be beneficial to him, winning him favour. No, the Cummings-Johnson line is never look back, never apologise and carry on regardless of what the little people think. That’s you and me by the way, the little people. Bojo’s strategy, if that’s not to grand a word, is to lie, and then lie again. He had never blamed care home staff [first lie] who were the most wonderful of the little people, doing a fantastic job for peanuts admittedly but Rishi will have some dosh somewhere to dole out. The problem is, he goes on, that no one knew about asymptomatic transmission back then [second lie] and it was all very well Mr Hindsight, his juvenile epithet for Starmer, criticising now. Actually asymptomatic transmission was known about in January. It may have been that Bojo didn’t actually know this for in the early stages of the pandemic he was largely absent, having important things to do like sort out his divorce and check online for the best dirt bike he could have fun on at Chequers. He had missed 5 Cobra meetings after all. Well, people didn’t tell him they were on, did they? And Dom thought Cobra was a complete waste of space anyway.
The trouble is when you lie repeatedly, you cease to know what the truth is. You create a fictional world in which you are always right – the Trump way par excellence – and the distinction between fact and fiction is forever blurred. Truth becomes what you want to be true. Or what you can get away with. Inconveniently, however, facts have a way of staying around. And liars get found out. Think of the damage done to Blair’s reputation by his claim that Iraq had missiles of mass destruction capable of being launched in 45 minutes. It was a lie and it didn’t take long for that to be evident. Cynics that you are, you may be thinking all politicians lie. Perhaps they do. But some do it more than others, and to some, like Bojo and Trump, it’s a long-standing character trait. Good leaders – oh, where are they? – know that people need to believe in you and the best way to achieve that is to tell them the truth.
I decide to ask M what the difference is between fact and fiction. I tell her I’m planning to write about in my next blog.
‘It’s simple,’ she says. ‘What I say to you is fact. What you write in the blog is fiction.’
‘That’s not fair.’ [When people say ‘That’s not fair’ it means it is].
‘Did I ever say, ‘quality time’?’
‘That was weeks ago! I can’t believe you are still on about it.’
‘Weeks ago or not, did I ever say it?’
I wish I had never broached to topic. I am beginning to feel like Bojo when questioned by Starmer.
‘Okay. I was merely embroidering, you know, trying to make the blog read well.’
‘It’s not a tapestry. So maybe less of the embroidery and more of, what shall I call it, ah yes, the truth.’
Blog Number 37 [Tuesday 7th July 2020]. Jokes and Panto.
Mr Anastasiades, a man of extreme wealth and prominence in society, gets out of a taxi. The taxi driver, eagerly expecting a generous tip, is put out when the great man gives him a few pennies. Stung by this the taxi driver says: “Mr Anastasiades, I have to tell you this. I often have your son in the cab, and he always gives me a really big tip. To which Mr Anastasiades replies: “Ah, unlike him, I don’t have a rich father.”
My father used to tell this joke. Was he conscious of its meaning to us? I was the son of a rich father after all. He may have been but that was not why he told the joke. What he liked, what we all like about jokes, is simple. It’s the unexpected, the twist at the end. Told well, such a joke makes people laugh and in doing that the joke teller has occupied the centre stage for a short while. The joke doesn’t even have to be funny. The comedian, Tommy Cooper, told terrible jokes, most of which he messed up. That was the real joke of course. A comedian should be able tell slick jokes with great punch lines and we laugh because Tommy Cooper’s attempts always fall flat. Yet, once you have seen Cooper’s routine, you already know it will go wrong. There’s no twist. In fact, you are eagerly expecting him to cock it all up. The reason it’s funny is all in the man and the delivery. To many Cooper was a very funny man [see Antidote below].
Here’s another joke:
It’s the 2nd World War. A new inmate arrives at the POW camp where many have been interned for several years. He’s told by one of the veterans that once a week everyone piles into Hut C to listen to jokes. They go along together. They all sit around waiting expectantly. A person gets up to tell the first joke. “Number 34,” he says, and everyone bursts into laughter and applause. He sits down and the next person gets up. “Number 72,” he says. Again everyone bursts into laughter and applause. This happens again and again. Someone gets up and says a number and everyone laughs. Afterwards, the new inmate asks the veteran what’s going on. “We have all heard the jokes so often,” he says, “that we wrote them down in a joke book and gave each a number. That way we can just say the number and everyone knows the joke.” The new inmate studies the joke book and at the next meeting he decides to tell one of the jokes. “Number 49,” he says. But instead of roars of laughter and applause there’s total silence. Crestfallen he sits down. Afterwards, he asks the veteran what happened. Was there something wrong with Joke Number 49? “No,” says the veteran. “That’s an excellent choice.” “So why didn’t people laugh?” “What’s funny is not the joke,” he goes on. “It’s the way you tell it.”
Many of you will have seen this joke coming. Does that matter? A little. The first time you hear a joke is best if it has a really good punch line. Thereafter, the enjoyment is more in the anticipation of the joke, the build-up, and that is all about the person and the delivery. That and sharing the humour with your friends for shared jokes give us a feeling of solidarity. The many, many jokes about Trump, for example, provide a release for the anger and frustration people feel at having such an awful person in one of the most powerful positions in the world. Similarly, with regard to the incompetent, self-serving shower in charge of this country. Are such jokes helpful? It depends. In the sense that they provide a release, yes. In the sense that they undermine those in power, maybe or maybe not. After all Boris Johnson got where he is today by encouraging buffoonery of which he was the butt. Remember the man hanging on a tripwire? He has honed his persona over years right down to the blonde hair that he carefully tousles before giving a speech and the provocative one-liners. “Fuck business,” he said. Has that damaged his popularity? No. And yet…
In Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke, a man makes a casual, jokey remark about politics. It’s reported and his life is turned upside down. Authoritarian governments come down hard on people telling jokes at their expense. If jokes didn’t matter, why would they do this? John Lennon, responding to criticism of his and Yoko Ono’s week-long bed-in the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel, said: “It’s part of our policy not to be taken seriously. Our opposition, whoever they may be, in all manifest forms, don’t know how to handle humour. And we are humorous.” Satirical humour directed at those in power is a political statement. It provides a focus and a forum. Hence, the hashtags, the tweets, the sharing of funny videos. But how does humour fare against tanks, tear gas and the baton charges of riot police? Not a fair contest, is it? Still, even in the most dire of situations, when life is at its most terrible, a dark sense of humour can help. In Berlin, being heavily bombed during the final days of the 2nd World War and in the depth of winter when people were freezing and starving, a joke went the rounds. ‘What will you give as a Christmas present?’ ‘Be practical, get a coffin.’ Who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour?
And coming to the present day government, there is plenty of material for humour. Here’s my take on the latest developments.
The Arts are to be awash with dosh. Rishi, the boy Chancellor, [ventriloquist puppet to Bojo who is in turn ventriloquist puppet to Dom] announces that the they are to get £1.7 billion give or take a billion or two. Hooray! On the radio this morning a little known government minister by the name of Oliver Dowden talked of this ‘world-beating’ sum of money. What? Does everything the government does have to be world-beating? I mean the world must be in a parlous state, being pummelled on all continents by Bojo, Rishi, Govey, Mattie, and not forgetting Dom Raab, which I would dearly love to do but somehow can’t. Is there anything we are not world-beating at? Joined-up thinking? Telling the truth? Publishing reports of government inquiries?
Anyone like to tell me what Mr Oliver Dowden is Minister for? Thought not. Try Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Four in one! He’s a multi-tasker! Do you notice how Sport never gets its own ministry but is always tacked on to someone else’s? I think it needs an upgrade at the next reshuffle, Minister of Health and Sport perhaps. It would suit Mattie though, sadly, I doubt he will be around to enjoy it.
‘What are we world beating at?’ I ask M.
‘By ‘we’ you mean…?’
‘Me and you, you and me, happy together,’ I sing lustily if not all that tunefully.
A long silence. Singing might not have been a good idea.
‘I’m sorry, no need to be personal. I was just trying to make conversation…’
‘I mean that’s what you and I are world beating at, talking bollocks.’
‘At least when our so-called conversations get written up into what you like to call your blog. They’re truly bollocks. World-beating bollocks, I’d say.’
I don’t know whether to be proud or insulted. I mean bollocks is a bit harsh but if your bollocks are world beating, that’s something, isn’t it? Max, you can stop sniggering. This is not schoolboy humour. [Yes it is! says a voice at the back. No it isn’t! says another]. Pantomime, flushed with a dollop of Rishi’s cash, is back. But with this government did it ever go away?
Fade to a rehearsal at the Old Vic. On stage, two actors and the two ends of a Pantomime Horse. One is a blond tousled-hair bimbo in an ill-fitting suit and the other a rake-thin SPAD dressed in unwashed T-shirt and dirty grey tracksuit trousers.
‘Which end, am I, Dom?’
Weary sneer. ‘Which do you think, Bozo?’
‘You could get my moniker right, Dom. It’s Bojo. I am PM after all…’
‘Okay, don’t get your knickers and all that.’
‘…and as PM, I…’
‘Go in the back end.’
‘What? No, surely not.’
‘Think PM. I know that’s hard for you, thinking. Not your forte. But try. The back end is the best place for you. You can’t be seen, you don’t have to do anything, and you can nap to your heart’s content while I get on with all the important things.’
Like everything Dom says, it makes perfect sense, to him at least.
Off stage, a small tremulous voice. ‘Er, lads, the horse is actually mine. A pantomime horse is part of my remit.’
‘Who the fuck are you?’ thunders Dom.
Man in a smart grey suit appears on stage. ‘Name’s Dowden. Oliver Dowden. I am Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I’m in the Cabinet.’
‘I don’t care if you’re a turd being flushed down the toilet. You don’t decide anything. You are just a Minister and in my new uncivil service ministers don’t lead. They follow. Preferably social distanced at a safe distance of half a mile. Got it?’
‘Sorry. Just trying…’
‘You are exactly that. Trying. So go and be trying elsewhere.’
It’s pantomime, Jim, but not as we know it.’
Tommy Cooper. Does his routine still make you laugh?
A coincidence? The choice of 4th July for the grand reopening of UK plc? Wait a minute. Not UK for we have a disunited kingdom these days. Where’s Scotland? Not a question for Grant Shapps as he probably wouldn’t know. His expertise is elsewhere, on the A15, which he can bang on about for hours. No, where’s Scotland at this great moment? Fuming. Hell hath no fury as Nicola scorned, and scorned she was, since in a rare moment of consistency, the government failed to consult Scotland yet again. Wales too, leaving only Northern Ireland, who jumped the gun and opened pubs and bars first. But come back to the 4th July. Independence Day when a certain colony threw off its shackles and went it alone. Hmm, what’s the message there, you think? Ask Nicola. She’ll tell you.
The word ‘omnishambles’ has re-appeared, a good candidate for the Word of the Year. Do you want to go abroad? Yes? Okay, there will be a traffic light system for countries we can visit, green for ‘go’, amber for ‘wait’, and red for ‘no way, Jose’, announced Grant Shapps, and you won’t have to go into quarantine when you come back. This assumes people will want to come back. The next day a list of countries appeared without any traffic light system. They include Aruba, Bonaire, New Caledonia, St Pierre and Miquelon, French Polynesia, places that, frankly, I had no idea existed. Others were more familiar, Germany, Spain, France, Portugal. Hold on, not Portugal. Too dangerous. What? We have 6 times as many Covid-19 infections than Portugal does. Dangerous for us or for them? Would Portugal want us Brits, sorry, Englanders? Yes, it seems and more so now that we have blacklisted them. They are fuming. You could of course fly to Malaga, get your rental car and head west. I’m reliably told that will get you to Portugal.
But do you really want to go abroad? It’s a question I ask M.
‘I’d prefer to go to M & S,’ she says. ‘They have better cherries than Sainsbury’s.’
‘That’s your priority, is it? Ripe cherries?’
Though I am not as partial to cherries as M I have to agree. The last thing I want to do is to get on a plane where most of the air is recirculated and you are surrounded by strangers, masked or otherwise, for a couple of hours or longer. Not everyone feels that way. A photo appears in the papers of a leering, blonde haired masked man just arrived at Athens airport. Looks suspiciously like Bojo but turns out to be another Johnson, Stanley, father of our world beating PM. He’s not waited for Grant Shapps’ traffic lights system. He’s gunned the accelerator and gone through red, ignored the FO’s advice not to travel except for essential reasons, and utterly selfishly decided he needed to infection proof his Greek villa asap so he can rent it and get some dosh. What’s the phrase it makes you think of? Yes, that’s it. Like father, like son.
So here we are, about to embark on the next phase of the omnishambles that passes for government policy, loosen the lockdown and provoke another spike in Covid-19 infections resulting in more illnesses and more deaths, until another lockdown has to be introduced. The pubs are open again from 6 am today! Some of them at least. Others are more circumspect. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, tells us he can’t wait to go to the pub again. I’ll give a fiver to anyone who spots him in one. He has the cheek to tell us it’s our bounden duty to go out to bars and restaurants and spend, spend, spend. How must that sound to those who are on or below the breadline, or to those who have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced, or to many contemplating a very uncertain, perilous future? Then Bojo says we should clap for the capitalists now, for our wealth creators, which would be okay if so many didn’t take their wealth elsewhere to avoid paying taxes. Actually, it’s not okay. Not remotely. It’s sickening. It was a spontaneous movement started by a Dutch woman to clap for the front-line workers in the NHS and social care. They risk their lives daily and many have died. What do the so-called wealth creators risk? Commonly, other peoples’ money. And we should clap them? What breathless arrogance even to suggest it.
To those, not many on this list admittedly, who thought Boris Johnson was a good egg, time to rethink. Frankly, he is not even a curate’s egg; there are no parts that are not rotten. John O’Gaunt’s pelting farm is here. This sceptered isle leased out. It’s an omnishambles, a word that Will could have invented. Boris Johnson is the Falstaff of our age, hanging on a tripwire swinging uselessly, while the country goes to the dogs beneath him. And like Falstaff he cares not a whit for anyone but himself.
Last night I woke up with a searing pain stretching from my lower back down my left leg, what used to be called sciatica, but is doubtless called something else now by doctors. That’s the way of modern medicine; the docs change the names of everything so they can keep one step ahead of us lot, we who used to be called patients but are now called customers or service users. Normally, I am a stoic in these circumstances. But the pain was difficult to ignore. I must have woken up M when I got up and did a few star jumps.
‘What time is it?’
This is always M’s first question, which irritates me because she has a perfectly visible clock on her bedside table.
‘I don’t know. Early. Three fifteen maybe.’
‘Why are you doing exercises in the middle of the night? No, don’t answer. Go and do them somewhere else for God’s sake.’
‘I have got this pain down my back and leg again.’
‘I am very, very sorry to hear that,’ she says very, very slowly, and then even more slowly, and slightly more loudly, ‘GO DOWNSTAIRS, OR OUTSIDE, OR ANYWHERE.’
‘Don’t worry about me,’ I say in the martyred tone long married couples have perfected, as I get back into bed. ‘I’ll just lie here. I’ll be okay.’
M’s only response to this is to yank the duvet and mutter something about being freezing cold when I know she gets too hot at night for she has been sleeping mostly out of the covers. She denies this. A few nights ago I took a photo and showed it to her in the morning. For some reason this made her cross.
“If you take any more photos of me in the middle of night,’ she said, ‘I will divorce you.”
“Promises, promises,” I said.
“I am serious, John” she said. “It constitutes domestic abuse. It’s a violation of my constitutional rights.”
Now that is simply not true for in this world beating country of ours we don’t have a constitution. And taking a photo of your wife cannot be domestic abuse unless she’s stark naked and you post it on the internet with some jokey emojis and I had no intention of doing that. Still, I recognised from her saying the cue word, ‘John,’ that it would be better to put the spade down and climb out of the hole.
Trump has bought up all the supplies of the drug remdesivir from Gilead which is the sort of grandiose Biblical name a pharmaceutical company gives itself. That’s half a million doses. His MAGA wearing supporters will cheer to the rafters without realising it’s only for himself, his family, Putin and close associates, and the Trump hotel chain where along with the Gideon Bible and Trump’s ghost written book, The Art of the Deal, it will be offered at a special knock-down price to all his loyal customers. Go Trump! I mean it literally.
Yesterday we had to reboot the internet, which is always a scary prospect for it usually ends in existential despair. We waited with bated breath as our router archly flashed its red and green lights for several minutes at us. Finally, it settled down to a steady light and the internet was back. Phew! But then I discovered my SONOS app would not work. Whatever I did, it remained a light grey screen that shuddered as though in terrible pain. After futilely switching it off and on and even risking the router’s wrath by rebooting it again, I was stumped. I had to ring the SONOS help line. Eventually, a lilting Scandinavian voice answered that was somehow instantly calming.
‘How can I help, John?’ Sven said after we had done our oh so friendly exchange of names..
I explained. Sven then took me by the hand and led me through a series of baby steps, which included a request to do another reboot of the router.
‘Are you sure?’ I said. ‘It won’t like it.’
He paused for a second. ‘No worries, John. It’s not actually alive, you know.’
‘I’m not so sure about that. It can be temperamental.’
Another pause. ‘Of course. Trust me. It will be fine.’
It was then that I noticed that the ethernet cable connecting the router to the SONOS speaker had somehow been detached. It was déjà vu all over again for the last time I had contacted the SONOS helpline, that had been the problem. In fact, I had made a careful note to myself to check the cable if the app didn’t work only [a] I had no idea that I had done this and [b] I had no idea where I had left the note. I confessed all to Sven who was not at all fazed, no doubt coming across this sort of stupidity several times a day. Once all had been re-established, we said our sad goodbyes.
‘Just one thing, Sven, before you go.’
‘Of course, John.’
‘Do you by any chance do marital counselling?’
He chuckled. ‘Goodbye, John. Take care and check those cables.’
He must have thought I was joking.
Do you have a growing realisation when you are reading a book that you have actually read it before? As I reached Chapter 24 of The Luminaries, after 20 hours of listening, it dawned on me that this was all too familiar. Maybe I had just read that particular chapter before for occasionally one of the review papers features a specific chapter. But no. I began to remember how it all played out and, even worse, that I had been disappointed with the ending. Up to now I was enjoying it hugely with its cast of larger than life characters and its tales of the South Island gold fields in the 1860s. I consulted M.
‘This isn’t it, is it?’ I asked. ‘The beginning of the long, slow decline into dementia and death? Tell me, please.’
‘That’s not the right answer. Try again.’
‘You men are such babies. We are all losing our marbles. I forgot to take the bread out this morning.’
‘It’s not as though you forgot we were making bread or what the breadmaker is for.’
‘And you didn’t forget what a book is for. You just forgot you’d read this one before. Look on the bright side.’
‘There’s a bright side.’
‘You don’t have to buy another book. You can just go on reading The Luminaries. That will save us loads of money especially as you don’t finish most of the books you buy.’
‘Not helpful. I’m going to call Sven.’
‘The SONOS guy.’
‘I thought the SONOS was working.’
‘It is. But he has such a calming voice. I’d just like to hear it again.’
Lovely, smooth modern jazz, the trio Możdżer Danielsson and Fresco in 2016. Even my old pal, Adrian, who claims that jazz is an offence to the ears, might enjoy this.
M and I listen to music every morning. I may have told you this but if you are like me, you have probably forgotten. It’s hard to remember anything these days, even what I did yesterday. Each day bleeds into each other. Sorry, that’s not a nice image. How about, each day runs into one another. No, that won’t do. Days in lockdown do not run; they amble at best. Oh dear, let me start again.
M and I listen to music every morning, day after day [that’s better]. On Wednesday we listened to the young Luciano singing “Che gelida manina” from La bohème, not perhaps the best choice given it was one of the hottest days of the year. And it doesn’t end well for poor Mimi, does it? Still, that voice! He could transfix England football fans. Well he did, didn’t he? At the risk of tarnishing my reputation as a serious classical music lover, I got this from a CD called 101 Opera Favourites. It has all the good stuff without all the boring recitative bits. Now I know, I know. I am shocking the true opera aficionados amongst you like Mary-Ann, Tim, Mike, Gabrielle, Adrian, Nan, gosh, there are lots of you. But choosing to listen to the recitative? Really? In the Barber of Seville it took 20 minutes of, frankly, stupendously boring recitative for someone to send a letter. I timed it. I was tempted to shout out, ‘For God’s sake, get on with it!’ But even in the less than hallowed precincts of Oxford’s New Theatre, that would have caused offence. But as to Luciano. I’d listen to him any time.
Some good news, especially for my friend Stephen. Liverpool have won the Premier League. Hooray! They deserve it not least for their German manager, Jurgen Klopp. He of the floppy hair, the horn-rimmed glasses, wide smile and shining white teeth. When the virus struck and threatened to void the season which they were winning at a canter, he said, “Never mind. Football is the most important thing of the least important things.” He has a humility that is welcome after the preening self-importance of other managers and politicians. When you next find yourself muttering about Germans with their beach towels on loungers or their apparent humourlessness or their militaristic nature, do think of Jurgen. [You could think of Angela but I suspect you might be better off with Jurgen].
Everybody knows that it is far too early to relax restrictions since the first wave is still with us and our world beating Test and Track system is, shall we say, in development. It will only end in tears. Now I recall that Tim, amongst others, mocking the predictions of behavioural scientists that the downside of a complete lockdown is that people will at some point cease to regard it seriously and cracks will appear. Well, we are seeing it now. The crowds on Bournemouth beaches, the raves in city centres, the mingling in parks, the demos and marches, the joyous celebrations of Liverpool fans, and that’s just in this country. It’s not helped by Bojo’s desperation to be seen as a jolly Santa showering pressies on the grateful masses. Narcissists want to be loved and you can’t be loved when we are telling people to stay at home all the time and not to exercise the inalienable right of every English man and woman which is to go to Primark and buy stuff. Hence, the many U-turns, the latest of which is the tearing up of Pritti’s flagship announcement of 14-day quarantine for all visitors to the UK. Poor Pritti. You at last get to flex your tiny muscles and then a bumbling blonde-haired bimbo comes along and throws sand in your face. In case you misunderstand me, I am not suggesting Bojo has been out digging sandcastles on a Bournemouth beach. He’s not a Bournemouth beach sort of guy really. The beaches he goes to are elsewhere. They tend to be in the Caribbean and owned by Richard Branson. Pritti should be grateful anyway. As behavioural scientists will tell you, Tim, getting people to do something they don’t want to do needs more than telling them it’s for their own good. You need something else. A small orange vegetable and a large piece of wood sums up decades of behavioural scientific research. And you also need Mattie’s world beating Test and Track App and that is, what’s the phrase, still in development.
‘Wouldn’t it be great to go somewhere?’ I say to M for I’m not immune from the Hooray, Let’s Get Out and Play Again syndrome.
‘Well anywhere really.”
‘I’m not sitting cheek-by-jowl on a crowded beach,’ she says. I already know this for she has never wanted to do that.
‘What about York? We can see Sarah and the twins.’
‘It’s a long drive and how do we get there without stopping?’
‘Why would we need to stop?’
M gives me The Look.
‘I have told you,’ I say a trifle defensively, ‘I can do without coffee if absolutely essential.’
‘It’s output not input I’m talking about.’
M rolls her eyes. [Actually she doesn’t. No one rolls their eyes except in novels].
‘Okay,’ I say as the penny drops [a rather too appropriate phrase]. ‘I get it. I tell you what I’ll email Dominic Cummings. He’ll have some tips.’
I can see M is not impressed by my attempt at levity.
‘How about we take an empty bottle? Or even two?’ I say.
Mind you, my last experience of using a bottle was not a great success. It was on the Trans-Siberian where they lock the loos at stations. There’s a 7 hour stop when you go through customs and that’s a long time even if you don’t have ‘prostate issues’ as they are delicately called. I could tell you what happened but I think it’s best left to your imagination.
M ignores my bottles suggestion. ‘Anyway,’ she says, ‘we should not be going out unnecessarily.’
‘But others are. Bahram and Jean have gone to France.’
‘That’s your reason, is it? Everybody else is doing it. So why can’t we?’
‘No.’ [It is]
‘No? So what is your reason?’
Those who have been married for a long time, especially if it’s to the same person, will recognise this point in a conversation when you see that your partner might have a point [be completely right]. There are really only two options. You double down or you change the subject. Marital therapists will tell you there’s a third, that you look your spouse in the eye, smile lovingly and tell them they are right. But those therapists are either not married or if they are, have a marriage that is not like any other on the planet. I chose the second option.
‘Hey, I have just remembered. We’ve not talked about what we are having for dinner.’
You may think this won’t work. But, Tim, behavioural scientists have shown that the most effective way to get someone to change is to offer them food. Admittedly, the majority [all] of the research studies were done on rats in a maze. Still, that’s not so different from a long marriage, is it?
At breakfast, M read me the latest Trump diatribe. Having walked unsteadily down a ramp, he is now convinced there’s a conspiracy to make ramps steeper than they were under Obama. Orchestrated by George Soros of course. This was in a New Yorker piece. It ended:
Trump told reporters that he was also considering signing an executive order requiring all ramps to have an incline of zero degrees, rendering them completely flat.
“Those would be perfect ramps,” he said.
Responding to this proposal, CNN’s Jim Acosta asked if, by making ramps flat, Trump would in effect be making the nation’s ramps no longer ramps at all.
“You’re a terrible person,” Trump replied.
You couldn’t make it up. Except the writer of the piece is Andy Borowitz, described as author and comedian [hint there]. The problem with Trump is that it is entirely believable. Like his assertion that too many tests are being done for coronavirus which makes America look bad. The more tests you do, the more infections you find, he declares. So ramp down [sorry] on the testing. Did he really say this? Yes, more than once. Is he serious? Yes. “I don’t kid,” he said when asked by a journalist if he was kidding. It makes sense in Trumpington, USA, where the way things look is more important than the way things are, which is why the empty seats at his campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma must have hurt. My old friend Colin, who may or may not have squared up to Clive James in 1968 [see Mini-Blog 5 and ensuing correspondence], posted this little ditty, https://youtu.be/wyJe5NPj4jc
Over this side of the pond, mini-Trump tells us from July 4th – deliberate choice this date I guess – we are all free to go out and catch the virus [I summarise]. Apparently we have been in hibernation. Well, the government has in any event. Things have not gone all that smoothly [a candidate for the understatement of the year]. Mattie has had to set up a new Test, Track and Trace system to find out where the old Test, Track and Trace system has gone. Last seen heading towards the Isle of Wight, it seems. I just hope he’s not going to propose another App. The last one cost £12 million to fail to appear, which is enough dosh to respray 5 planes and build 2 new yachts for Queenie [model yachts actually as Philip wants a change from the toy ducks he plays with in the bath]. Now no more from the gloomsters and doomsters as Bojo would say, there is some really good news. The pubs will be opening. Hooray! But there are some caveats. Sit back, close your eyes and imagine going to your local…
A customer about to enter the Rose and Crown is stopped by the landlord, Andrew. He’s wearing a Union Jack mask and brandishing a gun, a cap gun admittedly but it looks like the real thing.
‘I just want a drink.’
‘Yes, I know. The rules are you have to give me your name and a contact number before I can let you in.’
‘Sorry, already have a Boris Johnson. Try again.’
Andrew glares. ‘You’re a man.’
‘I might be trans.’
‘In which case I can’t let you in. I only have a Ladies and a Gentleman’s Loo.’
Even if you get into the pub, you have to follow guidelines like not leaning on the bar, surely the inalienable right of all pubgoers, and there is to be “limited contact with staff”.
Man ordering a round of drinks. ‘Two pints of Old Hooky, a hugely expensive glass of Chardonnay, a gin and…’
‘Sorry, time’s up.’
‘You have exceeded your limited contact time with staff.’
‘But I haven’t finished my order.’
‘Sorry. That’s it. It’s the rules.’
‘If you persist in talking, I will have to ask you to leave. Next.’
It will pub going but not as we know it.
A youthful Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey on the proper function of government.
Taking the knee is from Game of Thrones [Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary]
Taking the knee is an act of subservience [Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary]
Black lives matter but so do white ones [Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary]
Truthfully, Dom didn’t say the last, at least not out loud. Aren’t we lucky to have such a man as Foreign Secretary? We are for we might have Gavin Williamson, Mattie Hancock or Boris Johnson instead. Sorry, we did have Bojo, he who hummed the Road to Mandalay in a sacred temple in Mayanmar and was rapped over the knuckles by the British Ambassador. How did Kipling’s little ditty go?
In the Shwedagon Pagoda, in the country Myanmar
There’s a man a-hummin’ and I know he will go far
For the wind of change is coming and the Brexit bell does say:
“Come you back, you Brexit warrior; come you back to Churchill’s day
Come you back to Churchill’s day.
I can’t repeat the rest as it has references to picaninnies with watermelon smiles and other now deemed ‘unacceptable’ terms. It amazes me that after his debacle as Foreign Secretary, Bojo should be considered Prime Minister material. But then, to use a language Bojo claims to think in, he is only primus inter pares and you only have to look at the pares. Another way of putting it is that he’s the worst of a bad job. Which brings me to poor Mattie Hancock.
Do you remember just a few weeks ago Mattie proudly unveiling the new all British, world beating Test and Trace App, the one that is to be trialled on the Isle of Wight? How proud the islanders must have felt to be signalled out. And how disappointed they must feel now that the App is to be withdrawn. Or maybe not. Did you see the vox pop from Look South!, the island’s local news channel?
SCENE: Elderly couple standing on a wind-swept promenade interviewed by young local reporter.
[Local reporter] ‘What do you think now that the world beating Test and Trace App is being withdrawn? Are you disappointed?’
[Long silence. Then finally the woman speaks] ‘What’s an App?’
And what is an app? Ask Apple or Google for it seems we are going to use a world beating combination of theirs now. News to Apple apparently and not welcome news at that for do they really want what passes for the British government anywhere near their App? After all, we all know it can only end in tears. Which brings me [again] to poor Mattie Hancock.
Gamely he fronted the Three Podium Briefing yesterday, only perhaps in line with government cuts to fund a respray job on Bojo’s plane, it was reduced to a Two Podium briefing. For company he had the wonderfully named Dido Harding, she of great successes like Talk Talk and now Test and Trace. Remember Dido? No, not the singer! The Queen of Carthage abandoned by her lover Aeneas who then stabbed herself with a sword and immolated herself on a pyre just to be sure. I suspect this is more likely to happen to Mattie than Baroness Harding who is one of those people who goes blithely untouched from failure to failure, collectively known nowadays as doing a Grayling. Anyway, Mattie stumbled on claiming he had been in serious talks with Apple and Google about pilfering, sorry adopting their Apps though sadly that was mostly in Mattie’s head where all sorts of wonderful things go on. I do feel sorry for Mattie though. Bojo and Dom have him lined him up in their sights. He knows it too but he still can’t help putting himself out there for all to take a pot shot at. When his time comes, we will miss him, won’t we? Okay, okay, I’m not expecting you to answer. Anyway, like Banquo’s ghost he may return, a spectre in his blue suit, white shirt, pink tie and matching pink handkerchief peeping out of his top pocket who will haunt the briefings wistfully calling out, ‘Remember me! Please! Remember me!’
Conversation with M this morning:
[Me]. ‘I’m going off to write my blog.’
[M]. ‘Another one? Have you got anything more to say?’
[M] ‘But anyway haven’t you just written one?’
[Me] ‘Well yes but people want to read more. And I’m bored with the jigsaw.’
[M] ‘Not surprised. You spent an hour and 25 minutes doing it this morning.’
[Me] ‘What did you actually time me? That’s a bit unnecessary.’
[M]. ‘I didn’t “actually time” you. It was 8.30 when I started my chores…you know the word ‘chores’ do you?…and 9.55 when I finished. You hadn’t moved from the jigsaw in all that time.’
[Me] ‘Well, it’s a tricky one.’
[M]. ‘Of course it is. By the way when you have finished writing that great piece of fiction you like to call a blog, I have a tricky bit of ironing you might like to tackle and there’s a tricky bit of washing up to do too. As long as you’re up to it, darling, after all your tricky exertions.’
I feel a bit bruised to be honest. I must remember not to use the word tricky in future as for some unaccountable reason M seems to have an aversion to it. Tricky that though. Oh God!
The guitarist Sean Shibe playing Bach, the Sarabande from the Suite in E-minor
M tells me on our morning walk she thinks we’ll be in lockdown for the rest of the year.
‘Surely not,’ I say, taken aback. I do a quick calculation. ‘That’s another 6 months.’
‘We are old and regarded as ‘vulnerable.’ So we can’t take any risks.’
‘I don’t think I’m really all that vulnerable,’ I say. ‘Or all that old for that matter.’
‘You’re 73, aren’t you?’
It’s not like M to get something wrong but the truth is I’m 74 and have been since 12th February this year. Should I correct her? Usually that doesn’t go down all that well.
‘Sort of,’ I say as a compromise.
M frowns. ‘Sort of? Oh, okay, I get it, you’re 74. But that’s old anyway.’
‘You’ve made my point. Age is just a number…’
‘And you are as old as you feel? Is that what you were going to say?’
It was! ‘No. Of course not.’
‘So what were you going to say?’
This is tricky. I could say I can’t remember but that would just confirm M in her belief that I’m going senile.
‘I was going to say,’ I begin, thinking desperately, ‘that if you are right and we are in lockdown for another 6 months, it’s lucky that we get on so well.’
At this M abruptly stops. In solidarity I stop too. We face each other.
‘Don’t you think?’ I say.
A big smile spreads over M’s face. ‘I was thinking,’ she says, ‘another 6 months of this and one of us would end up killing the other.’
A big smile comes over my face. ‘Yes. And I know which one would do the killing.’
‘So do I,’ she says.
I wonder if we are thinking of the same person.
Yet another debacle for what passes as Her Majesty’s Government. A certain Marcus Rashford has been leading a campaign for free school meals to continue over the summer. He wrote a reasoned and impassioned open letter to HMG. Now that’s 1.3 million children who would go otherwise go hungry. We are the 6th largest economy [though that will change and not in a good way] and surely the government can find the wherewithal to feed our poorest children over the summer break. Rashford came from a family that survived on free school meals. He knows what he’s talking about. He is a modest, likeable guy. And he also happens to be a megastar, a talented football player, centre forward for Manchester United and England. You would think any politician would recognise how this will pan out. But no, not Bojo. There will be no free school meals over the summer, he firmly declares. Local councils can take care of it [they can’t]. They have lots of dosh [they don’t]. Less than 24 hours later, it turns out there will be free school meals in the summer break after all. Hooray! You could say the government made a meal of this [ha! ha!] and if they did, it was surely a dog’s breakfast. I could go on but there’s no point. Just read the wonderful, incomparable, scathing Marina Hyde,
Do you avidly follow the news? If you do, how do you feel? I asked myself this question and this was the answer: angry, anxious, frustrated, worried, helpless, depressed. Most of my friends feel the same. So why do we persist? Why don’t we shut out the noisy, angry world, switch it off as you might switch off a TV programme that you find too disturbing to watch. I decide to ask a psychologist.
‘M, why do we watch all this crap on the TV?’
[Defensive] ‘I happen to like East Enders. I know it’s not your thing…’
‘Actually, I meant the news.’
‘Oh. Okay, it’s better to be informed.’
‘But is it? I mean what’s to be gained. It’s not as though we can change anything.’
‘I just need to know what that bastard is up to.’
‘Are you talking about East Enders again?’
‘No! I mean Boris.’
‘We know the answer to that and it’s just two words.’
‘I was thinking ‘no good’ but that will do too. Wouldn’t it be better if we made a pact…’
‘Yes, a pact, an agreement…’
‘I know what a pact means…’
‘…not to watch or listen to or read the news for a week. Then see how we feel.’
‘Hello? Anyone in there?’
‘The thing is if we don’t talk about the news, what are we going to talk about?’
This is a valid question. The Premier League resumes today. Somehow I don’t think M will want to talk about football and anyway Liverpool is a shoo-in to win the league, which will please my friend Stephen who has been on tenterhooks since the lockdown threatened cancellation of the whole season.
‘Other stuff,’ I say. Admittedly, this is not all that specific.
‘Other stuff?’ M brightens up. ‘Yes, we could revive our plan to re-do the front room. Look at some furniture catalogues and on-line websites. I could probably get some swatches sent now that the shops are open. First we need to decide whether to re-cover the sofas or buy new ones. Probably not much difference in price. Second…’
This is not going well at all. I need to say something and quickly. ‘I was thinking we might read all of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, maybe one a day, and then discuss it in a sort of tutorial.’ Truthfully, I was not thinking that. It just popped into my head.
‘Oh.’ M pauses. ‘I suppose we could do something like that, or…’
‘Maybe,’ I say, ‘not watching any news at all is a bit too much, a bit like going cold turkey.’
‘Yes and that never works, does it?’
‘It’s Wednesday today, isn’t it? That means PMQs at 12. It would be a shame to miss it.’
‘Yes. It would.’
‘Let’s put the pact on hold and think about it and discuss it later, maybe next week.’