The comment that baffled Boris

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

Real men are not supposed to confess to feeling fear. But I am frightened, second time round, about the plague. There is superstition involved. Back in March, I had an underlying belief that I would be somehow immune. This time, I feel differently. It’s partly those vertiginous graphs and partly my gloomy streak, a ‘just-my-luck’ sense that if I did succumb, it wouldhappen with the vaccine only a hand’s-grasp away. So I’m cautious. For many people, the latest lockdown is atrocious, job-destroying, family-wrecking news. For me, it’s more of the same. Work aside, I go out only for a daily walk, hobbling along the local canal or round Regent’s Park, dodging knots of people, and standing ostentatiously aside for runners, like a pallid Victorian curate confronted by Painted Women. I’d been astonished by the big gatherings outside pubs, groups of dozens walking together, families packing up the car and disappearing every weekend, presumably to the country, as per normal. But even before Boris Johnson rummaged around looking for unfamiliar words for Tuesday night’s broadcast — ‘frustrating… alarming… cautious…’ — the mood had changed. The new variant has spooked people — more masks on the street, more instinctive social distancing. If — if — the vaccine is rolled out fast and effectively, all will be well. If not…

When Johnson came to be interviewed on Sunday — schools were still very safe, then, remember, and exams still on — he chided me for my ‘gloom’, so I ended by noting that it had been a conversation between a Scotsman and an Englishman. He was confused. Why had I said that? No constitutional point was being made. I was simply referring back to my natural, wintry-Caledonian, comfortless, slate-grey, east-coast temperament. He, of course, is different. I’d been watching his body language. He was so keen to declare good news, he kept visibly inflating. His chest and chin came up. A grin began to spread. And then… he remembered. It’s as if Mr Micawber had suddenly found himself adrift in a Solzhenitsyn novel.

In one respect, I’m thoroughly enjoying the worse weather. The family was extended a year ago by the arrival of a labrador-retriever of bottomless appetite, who answers (sometimes) to Baxter. All summer, in parks around us, people carefully assembled picnics. Nice people, feeling: yes, life can be good. Then Baxter would arrive at the speed of a diving aircraft, tail like a propeller. If you can imagine a cheerful Stuka, that was the general effect. Innocent greetings would turn to cries of horror as Baxter scythed through the gathering and roared out the other side with an entire pizza, several sausages or sandwiches dangling from his grinning mouth, before swinging round to attack again. We would follow behind, apologising and lying fluently about how he’d never done this before. ‘But… but… those were vegan sausage rolls,’ said one incredulous woman, on the edge of tears. Baxter didn’t care. He has many qualities — good humour, great good looks, bottomless affection. But he was born without a conscience. Today, he may arrive home soaking and mud-spattered. Our walls look like the work of Jackson Pollock in his brown period. But the end of alfresco eating has reduced our guilt delightfully. Let it sleet, let it sleet…

Like many people, I have been surviving mentally by reading. And I’ve noticed a page-number bias. The more time we devote to reading, or listening to a particular piece of music, or whatever, the likelier we are to declare the work profound. Having spent the time, we hate admitting it’s been wasted. So I ‘know’ I love Proust, Dickens, Eliot and Tolstoy. But is that because I have spent so long reading them, I would now feel humiliated saying anything else. The same goes for other arts. Wagnerians are more passionate (and more boring) than lovers of Rossini, Mozart or Verdi but perhaps it’s just because they have spent so long squeezed into those pricey seats. Binge-watchers of long TV series bang on about how transformative they are in a way you don’t hear about individual dramas or short-form telly.

I can’t end without a BBC reflection. The numbers watching our shows are huge. But the hatred on social media is, sometimes, exhausting. What I think this apparent paradox means is that much of the country is both more focused on public affairs and far angrier than ever before. Some people, I’m afraid, have been driven almost literally mad by the events of the past couple of years, deranged by disappointment, unhinged by fear. In person, luckily, almost everybody is pleasant. We are not Americans yet.

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