‘Stopping the diary/’ wrote Philip Larkin, ‘Was a stun to memory,/ Was a blank starting.’ I never really understood those lines until Covid. The pandemic has turned my diary into an acre of white space, like the gymnasium wall at school just begging for some adolescent graffiti. ‘PARTY,’ I want to scribble. ‘SMALL FLAT, 100 PEOPLE, 8 P.M. BRING A BOTTLE.’ The damping down of all social activity this year has made the question ‘What did you do over the weekend?’ crassly offensive, or even something more sinister. Am I being asked this by a member of the new Stasi trying to catch me out? Before the pandemic I used to pretend to have an interesting life. Now I admit to a boring one: ‘Nothing,’ I reply.
Time and again, I have heard sentences that start: ‘2020 has been the worst year since…’. The line is often completed with a historical fact which allows the speaker to show off. The more obscure, the better. ‘The worst year since the Norway debacle’, or ‘the worst since a biliary tract injury made Eden take his eye off Suez’. I have even heard myself saying versions of it: ‘2020 has been the worst year since Germany found a gap in the Maginot Line at the Ardennes.’ Fearing this sounded too highbrow, I have now changed tack. ‘The worst since 1975, when no Cliff Richard single made the charts.’ But all these comparisons ignore the simple reality that the important events of our lives occur in private space. For me, 2020 is the worst year since 2018, when my father died.
I lost a friend this month. The cycle lane in Kensington kept me safe mornings and evenings, but the council seem to have panicked after a complaint from Nigel Havers, and they tore it out. As always, Twitter has the best response — ‘If loving bollards is wrong, I don’t wanna be right,’ wrote a commuting cyclist called Bob From Accounts. This perfectly sums up my own ideology in a city where car use has gone up as ridiculously as one of Patrick Vallance’s Sunday afternoon graphs.
I recently started subscribing to The Spectator, figuring that at the age of 55 I could achieve greater calmness of spirit by sponsoring others to be angry on my behalf. Week after week I have thumbed through the pages looking for the article that argues for cycle lanes to be built by the thousand, and it has been conspicuously absent. So it is down to me, parachuted in to write a diary, to say this as clearly as I can: cycling is right-wing. When you buy a bike you are throwing off the shackles of the state. No number plate, no insurance, no compulsory helmet. Also, no sat nav giving you directions through someone’s back garden to avoid the jam on the A404. In fact no jam — today or tomorrow! You are opting for efficiency above all. People think cycling is left-wing because a lot of left-wing people do it, such as Jeremy Corbyn. But cycling is not worthy, it is cheeky. A cyclist may have watched all 29 series of Top Gear, yet opted for a vehicle costing less than £200. Cyclists are acting out of primal selfishness — we want to travel quickly and keep fit. If people cycled ‘to save the planet’, that would be left-wing. But in my experience most of us do it to save ourselves.
With my teenage daughters effectively grounded — a microbe managing what I would never even dare to try — my wife and I have been thrown back to 1970s parenting. Come Saturday, we pull old board games from the cupboard and yell: ‘Let’s try this!’ So here we are, in the 21st century, unpacking actual chessboards and Scrabble sets (the smartphone version of Scrabble is the best argument yet against the internet existing at all). We play frantically and then fall out over someone having been in check for five minutes without noticing, or whether ‘Xi’ is a word. We have also played cards. We learned how to play poker because I thought my daughters could use lockdown to train as professionals. But it’s hard to enjoy poker without the risk of losing your house, so we canned that. Still, what with Rummy, Happy Families and the strangely named card game Big Tonka, we have a full set of analogue activities. And I have to be honest and say the time spent together is precious. Yet Covid has a knack of spoiling everything. I saw experts on the government’s Sage committee were recently saying that it would be unwise to play card and board games when families meet at Christmas: ‘Quizzes would be better.’ The printable part of my response: when the vaccine comes I want it in both arms and both legs.
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