No sacred cows

How to lose more friends and alienate more people

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

This used to be the busiest time of the year for me. If you do anything in public life — even something minor like running a free schools charity — you get asked to do a lot of things at Christmas. More if you pop up on telly occasionally. Last year, I must have attended at least a dozen carol services, and did a reading at most of them. I spoke at Christmas parties, gave after–dinner speeches and opened fairs.

And the nativity plays — don’t get me started on the nativity plays. I managed to limit myself to eight in 2017, but it’s usually more. I never cease to wonder at all the parents, up on their feet, filming the entire performance on their phones. Are they really going to inflict that on the grandparents on Christmas Day? All two hours?

But this year, nothing. Not a single invitation. Following my defenestration from public life, whereby I lost five positions, including my full-time job, I have been surgically removed from every VIP list. No Christmas cards either. It’s quite impressive in a way. I always assumed that no one ever checked these things. Some of the cards I used to get were redirected from an address I haven’t lived at for 20 years. But evidently someone checks — or word comes down from on high. Such are the costs of being targeted by a Twitter outrage mob.

Except they’re not really costs. I quite enjoyed being made a fuss of and I liked it when people praised me for the things I’ve done in education, but most of these public duties involved sitting in an uncomfortable chair, sometimes with a lukewarm glass of Sauvignon Blanc in front of me, and watching a performance of some kind or listening to a speech.

And God forbid you should get your phone out and check your emails. Then you’re one of those snooty, elitist, too-cool-for-school types. If you do, even if you’ve been sitting there with a rictus grin on your face for the past 90 minutes, some wag will lean over and say, ‘Boring you, are we?’ Well, yes, of course you are. This is my third nativity in a week. And I’m sorry if that’s your kid up there in the gold lamé star costume, but I don’t think he’s about to win an Olivier award.

My fall in status has been vertiginous, like the plot of a Tom Wolfe novel, but I can say, hand on heart, that it isn’t all bad. Yes, yes, there’s the money — or lack of it. I’ve always supplemented my income by doing freelance journalism, but it’s only now that I’m relying on it entirely that I realise just how difficult it is to make a living from being a hack. When I wrote my first piece for a national newspaper in 1985 I was paid three times as much as I get for an article today. Poor Caroline has had to take a part-time job to keep the wolf from the door. If interest rates go up, or Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister and introduces a property tax, we’ll have to sell the house.

So yes, that’s awful, obviously. But the upside is that I’ve now got much more time on my hands. All those household jobs I’ve been putting off for years, like cleaning the gutters and repainting my garden shed? Done. All those social science classics I ordered from Amazon and then stuck in a great big pile beneath my desk? Read them. That book proposal I’ve been meaning to pull together about the deadly embrace of identity politics by the intellectual left? Written.

And then there’s my exercise regime. Like most middle-aged men, I was at least two stone overweight and the prospect of losing it and becoming fit again was an ever more distant prospect. But one of the unforeseen benefits of finding yourself at the heart of a national scandal is that you start shedding the pounds.

By the time it all went tits up I’d lost half a stone and I thought, ‘OK, now’s your chance to lose the rest.’ That meant investing in various gizmos like a ‘smart scale’, 15 minutes of high-intensity interval training every day, running 10km three times a week, and obsessive calorie counting. Nine months later, I’m back down to the weight I was when I was 18. I call it the public humiliation diet.

Often, while I’m exercising, I listen to music, a rediscovered pleasure. Actually that’s not quite accurate,  because certain pieces move me more deeply than they ever have before. As I’m jogging round Gunners-bury Park, I put on Beethoven’s Ninth and experience a kind of joy. ‘This must be what people mean when they talk about being transported,’ I think. Music has never affected me like this before. Is it connected to my calamitous reversal of fortune? It feels that way.

It’s probably something to do with not having to keep all those plates spinning. Until March of this year, I’d been the CEO of this or the chairman of that for about 15 years, often running two organisations at the same time. I was always planning, always going through checklists in my head. The buck stopped with me and I carried that burden. I liked the responsibility, but it meant I lived in my head, not in the world.

And this brings me to the main benefit of being cast out of public life, which is spending more time with my family. Whenever I heard that phrase in the past, I always assumed it was an excuse, a way of trying to conceal the humiliation of a professional failure: ‘The secretary of state has decided to step down to spend more time with his family.’ But getting more involved in my children’s lives, helping them with their homework, cooking for them, ferrying them around… this too has been a source of unexpected pleasure.

Maybe it’s because they’re a bit older now. My main mode of communication with people I love is banter — endless mickey-taking. When my kids were five, six, eight and ten, this didn’t always go down so well. I would end up ‘crossing the line’, in Caroline’s words, and someone would run out of the room in tears. But now there is no line. Every mealtime is a festival of coruscating badinage. And boy, are they rude to me.

I’ve had a terrible year, probably the worst of my life. But, weirdly, I’ve never been happier. Merry Christmas.

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