A Lockdown Diary

The Idea that this is Over in Britain is for the Birds

DECEMBER 2019 – PREHISTORY

In days of yore, when no one knew the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic – apart from epidemiologists, whose job title nobody could yet pronounce – and when no one spoke of social distancing, except perhaps Marxists in reference to Royal Ascot; in that dim and distant time, the British public (including some people in traditional Labour voting areas of the country) decided to give the Tory party a majority of over eighty seats. Prime Minister Boris Johnson assured these erstwhile Labour voters who had lent him their vote that they would not regret it. I, however, was regretting everything, and I’d voted Labour. I was transported back to the string of such elections that people of like mind had commemorated with solemn wakes; well, as solemn as Irish ones. False consciousness, that was the problem. What else could explain the choice the British electorate habitually made? The Tories and their compliant newspaper editors had the uncanny knack of making the working men and women of this country vote against their own interests. Johnson’s sloganeering was even more simplistic than Theresa May’s had been. Get Brexit done! It was reminiscent of an impatient lady of the night in Manchester when a client took an excessive amount of time removing his trousers: “Come on, lad, let’s get it over with!” Apparently, this was just the kind of enticing pillow talk the British electorate could not resist. The childishness of this old country sometimes made you wonder what our first childhood looked like. I think I just came up with an explanation for Stonehenge.

 




All the work of big kids?

Nightmarish result as it was, at least I felt (like Lord Heseltine) that the matter of leaving was settled now and that I could say, without fear of contradiction, that Brexit voters were the dumbass receptacles of false consciousness, though it was hard, given what they had just voted for, to credit them with consciousness at all. It was if they had never heard the old joke (no surprise, really, as I’d just made up): “What’s the difference between a good Tory and a bad Tory? Good Tories step over the homeless as they leave the opera.” This was based on something the former Conservative cabinet minister, Sir George Young, now Lord Young of Cookham, famously said: “The homeless are what you step over when you come out of the opera.” He later resigned the Tory whip over Johnson’s proroguing of parliament, so he really was one of the good Tories after all.
Perhaps, I mused, if we all join the Tory party, we can outnumber them. Perhaps this was the cunning plan behind the huge Tory vote in the North: entryism on a massive scale. Michael Gove has declared they’re the party of the working class now. The strategy goes way back to the inventor of ‘one nation’ Conservatism, Disraeli no less: impersonate the workers, fob ’em off with jingoism and populist slogans, football and punning newspaper headlines. The old jokes are still the best jokes, and this election (falling so close to Christmas) was a cracker.

JANUARY AND MOST OF FEBRUARY

Having reluctantly pulled the cracker, the nation started dreaming of a grey Christmas. Every visit to the supermarket you had to run the gauntlet of seasonal schmaltz. The New Year followed, joyless as ever, and then the incessant rain began, and the flooding. Boris Johnson soon began acquainting the British electorate with the folly of their decision by avoiding the flooded areas like the plague, then finally being caught on camera reinventing the mop.

1 FEBRUARY 'DAY AFTER BREXIT

The optimists died in the gas chambers; the pessimists have pools in Beverly Hills.’ This was a profoundly dark comment from one of the escapees, but then Billy Wilder never was a master of polite circumlocution. Watched a bit of telly very briefly last night (through my fingers) to see how the Brexit brigade were behaving. I caught a glimpse of them singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and realised I had foreseen all this. I suppose that makes me a pessimist. More pessimistic than Wilder, as I am glumly convinced there’ll be no pool for me. Perhaps the pools were only briefly available. My consolation is that I hate swimming almost as much as I hate the idea of Beverly Hills. If Wilder was right, though, it may be time to consider fleeing this shallow-pated, mean-spirited little country before things get any worse. It hardly matters where to. When Brexit was announced and there was idle talk of Big Ben being rung to celebrate, Alastair Campbell predicted a lot of the remainers would be in bed by eleven, hiding under their duvets. Yup, that’s precisely what I did, without any prompting! I was content to be with my favourite cuddly toy who has always been a staunch remainer, but then she’s French. 

29 FEBRUARY

Nature is defying the gloom. It’s only daffodils so far, but the relief is profound. It is some time (approx. forty years) since I was a proper committed naturalist, before distractions got in the way. I remember when those distractions began, a sunny day on the Norfolk coast. As I scanned the sand dunes with my binoculars, no doubt in search of a ringed plover, I accidentally spotted something that persuaded me I was no longer interested in ornithology. Since the election, I’ve felt the same about politics. I used to watch the debates in the House of Commons with fascination. Now it’s so dull, I refuse to watch. Drama depends on conflict, and that is not to be had from a majority government, nor from the decision on who leads a comprehensively defeated party, i.e. Labour. I’m giving up on politics for a few years and taking up my defunct hobby again. This time I shall avoid sand dunes.

8 MARCH

Max von Sydow, the knight who played chess with Death while a plague ravaged the land, finally concedes defeat at the age of ninety.
 




Death always cheats

11 MARCH

People say Johnson’s good at devising slogans. I beg to differ, but then I’m not one of the duped souls shouting ‘traitor’ at him when he visits my flooded neighbourhood. He’s certainly not bad at recycling slogans, though. “Get Bewdley done!” was a classic of its kind. He’s like an inverted Churchill for our times, forever giving us the V sign the wrong way round. There’s something even worse than floodwater heading for Bewdley.

14 MARCH

Must I always start the day sentimental and end it cynical? It’s as if every single day is a telescoped version of life itself, from innocence to experience in twenty-four progressively more disappointing hours. This morning I awoke to videos of locked down Italians singing from their windows and sat there with tears streaming down my cheeks. By this afternoon, I’d seen so many examples I was beginning to find it all a bit much. By tonight I was relieved to be living in England where nothing like that could possibly happen. How long before even the Italians start to lose patience with other people’s jollity in the face of death? It only takes a few people to lose patience with that bloke down the road who, admittedly, is a fine baritone, but who has sung the national anthem once too often.

20 MARCH

Taking more solace from nature. We have great tits nesting in the backyard. I keep seeing them carrying bits of nesting material in their beaks. I’ve already learnt a lot I didn’t know about great tits, though googling them came as a bit of a shock.
 




The male great tit

23 MARCH

Boris Johnson reluctantly declares lockdown, burbling that no British prime minister ever wants to be the one to close pubs. People are already reading books on topics related to the pandemic: Boccaccio’s bawdy tales, Defoe on the pestilence, Camus ditto. Surprised no one is recommending Xavier de Maistre’s ‘journey around my room,’ or Sir Walter Raleigh’s unfinished history of the world, written while in the Tower and abandoned because he was unable to account for a violent assault that happened right under his cell window. Which will it be, then? May as well suck both and see, there’s going to be plenty of time.

31 MARCH

Now that Boris Johnson has discovered there ‘really is such a thing as society’ can we expect the rich to be taxed? Thought not.

THE WHOLE OF APRIL

Bit of a blank. Watched the entirety of a costume melodrama of dubious authenticity, Belgravia, for lack of anything better to do. Attempted to learn Arabic and got no further than the alphabet. PM is hospitalised and undergoing a ‘brush with death.’ Normal service to be resumed shortly. Paul McCartney has denounced wet markets. Attacks of giddiness diagnosed by my doctor as ‘benign vertigo,’ but what he prescribed made me feel worse. I discover it’s almost a century to the day after Eliot declared April to be the cruellest month. Like me, he was in Kent at the time, though he may have been wrong about the lilacs.

1 MAY

The Guardian runs an article entitled ‘A cavalier Tory leader and a botched pandemic response? It must be 1957.’ That time round, the leader was called Harold Macmillan and he was keen to stay upbeat although there was a flu pandemic. At the party conference, which went ahead amid the height of the contagion, Macmillan managed not to mention it. Who says the past is a foreign country? Today’s Tories mention it all the time, but they botch the response nonetheless.

3 MAY

Like a true Englishman, I am a creature of habit, even at the best of times. However, the number of habitual actions that I’ve developed since lockdown is getting pretty serious now. I feel the same aches and pains at exactly the same time of day, dream the same dreams at night, and rant identical rants in the evening. Just now, at eleven o’clock in the morning, my bowel began to complain the minute I made my wife her second cup of coffee. Barbarians at the gate. The effect was Pavlovian, I had to make haste and attend to their demands. I will soon become a daylong repertoire of triggers and habits like this, with no respite. I shall be the creature of my habits.

4 MAY

The swifts are back, screaming. They mate on the wing, in free fall, and drink raindrops in flight, but most notably, they screech at the tops of their voices. Nature can even voice our emotions when events render us speechless.

5 MAY

Once more we are ‘the sick man of Europe.’ The death toll is appalling. Like everyone else, I am increasingly dependent on the natural world for relief. No planes, no cars, the air fresh and filled with birdsong. The male blackbird hopped into the kitchen where my wife was working, looked up at her, then casually hopped right out again.

8 MAY

The local collared doves have taken to cooing all day for no particular reason. Their call resembles a simple, but prudent, message for our times: “A bar of soap! A bar of soap!”

9 MAY

Victory Parade in Belarus. Night Clubs open (briefly) in South Korea. The post of Expectations Manager in the government yet to be advertised, let alone filled. This feels like the long haul, yet there is talk of relaxing it, getting people back to work on bikes if necessary, opening schools. If anyone is suffering lockdown fatigue, it’s the Tories.

11 MAY, FIRST ‘HAPPY MONDAY’

Murdoch having to forego his bonus, the Sun newspaper proclaiming Happy Monday. It doesn’t get more cynical than this, selling newspapers with the promise of normality, as if we could flout the rules and no one would mind one bit. Well, maybe the killjoys at the briefings would, but they’re experts. Nuff said.

12 MAY

Prime Minister is keen to abandon the lockdown and entrust the fate of the nation to British common sense. Presumably, that would be the same common sense a majority of Brits exercised by electing his government back in December. The same good ole British common sense he displayed himself, by shaking the hands of sick people and bragging about it afterwards.

13 MAY

The Mexican health minister gives a speech invoking the new normality. At least, that is what he intends to invoke, but instead he calls it the ‘new mortality.’ This virus certainly has a sense of humour. Admittedly, it’s not a very subtle sense of humour. Something like the preacher in the flagellating scene of The Seventh Seal.

16 MAY

The BBC, in a valiant effort to deter people from making long journeys to beauty spots, shows them… ravishing pictures of beauty spots.
 




A beauty spot

17 MAY

We have managed to get completely immersed in nature, even without leaving our little terraced house, since the great tits moved into the nest box on our back wall. At first the parent (the male; his mate is nowhere to be seen) was quite wary, but he has lost all his inhibitions now that he’s run ragged feeding the family. The other day he even followed the blackbird’s example and walked right into the kitchen. Whenever my wife and I step out of the kitchen door, we can hear the chicks squeaking and we just stand there, transfixed. It’s a tiny sound, like the tick of a wrist watch, then it surges in volume whenever dad arrives with a caterpillar. He is incredibly busy, dashing about and taking in food parcels at a rate of one or two per minute, and disposing of their droppings on his way out. Incredible to see how a bird can be so driven by instinct. Occasionally, if he is momentarily wary of going in, he waits on a branch and gulps down the juicy morsel himself, but otherwise the paternal instinct has rendered him utterly selfless.

18 MAY

Matt Lucas entertains everyone with his Boris impersonation: “Go to work. Don’t go to work. Go to work.” It’s basically a reprise of yeah but, no but, yeah…. Meanwhile, the post of Expectations Manager in government is still vacant. Thinking of applying, but probably insufficiently weird.

20 MAY

Priti Patel (Home Secretary) shits on migrant health workers. Not a pretty sight. Today I heard the young great tits testing their wings in the box, eager to fly the coop. One knows exactly how they must feel.

22 MAY

Story breaks (after joint investigation by The Guardian and The Mirror) of Dominic Cummings having fled the capital for a country house in Durham. At last, a proper political scandal involving privilege and elitist behaviour to entertain and outrage a locked-down populace. This promises to be more entertaining than Belgravia. Senior Flouter to the Prime Minister. I imagine Johnson frantically penning two conflicting notes to self as we speak. It’s going to be another long weekend.

23 MAY

The great tit’s workaholism is beginning to alarm me, particularly as it’s in such stark contrast to my own idleness. Have to keep filling the feeder with mealworms so he can transfer them to gaping beaks.
 




Otto von Bismarck getting dropped

24 MAY

Drop the pilot! [little Bismarck reference there, for the delectation of you-know-who]. Surely the time has come for the politician in Boris Johnson to abandon his liability? But, in the words of the old adage, the liability knows where the bodies are buried. If the PM tries to distance himself, he’ll need more than the statutory two metres, lest the departing adviser has a vengeful streak. And he surely has. Cummings is like a character in one of the old revenge tragedies, the creepy assassin who smears the lips of a skull with poison before persuading his unfaithful mistress to kiss it. Obvious enough who is whose ‘bitch’ in this relationship.

Cummings feeling ‘weird’ in his wife’s account is quite funny. How would he distinguish that feeling from what he experiences all the time?
He was overheard admiring the bluebells in a wood near Durham. Man’s a poet, yet all he ever gets is flack.

According to Johnson, his main political adviser ‘followed the instincts of every father and every parent.’ Less instinctive fathers throughout the land are lost in awe at the man’s superabundance of instinct.

I recall Sajid Javid’s little joke about the ‘comings and goings, if you will’ at Number Ten. The Weirdo-in-Chief would be known as Goings from this day forth, if there were any (poetic) justice.

Glorious as ever to hear the cabinet defending the indefensible. Yes, time to drop the pilot, chaps, before the country drops the lot of you.
 




Svengali gives a press conference

25 MAY - CUMMINGS GOING NOWHERE

In the Rose Garden behind Number Ten, in a blaze of unseasonal sunshine, the journalists fidget for half an hour while they wait for Dominic Cummings to explain himself. Huge anticipation. There’s little expectation that Cummings will express contrition over his behaviour and resign. He’s more likely, given the pomp of the surroundings, to demand the Prime Minister’s resignation. ‘He has let me down. He has let himself down. Frankly, he has let us all down.’

Eventually Dom arrives, takes a seat at a rickety table, brusquely apologises for being late, then reads out a long and detailed account of his movements that easily rivals his blog for prolixity. The journalists, unable to absorb details on the scale of Tolstoy, reel with confusion. Cummings did what any ‘reasonable’ person would have done. The enemy is vanquished.

But the defence of the unapologetic adviser rests on the superfluity of his paternal instincts, a quality more normally associated with great tits. After the press conference, and once they have had a chance to consider his case, the reasonable minds of a grateful nation derive much amusement from his claim that he drove to a place called Barnard Castle, a beauty spot, to see if his eyesight was good enough for the journey back to London. It happened to be his wife’s birthday. It was also a round trip of sixty miles, but so strong was his urge to protect his family he took his wife and toddler along for the ride. It all smacks of “Do as I say, not as I do.” The Metro runs a merciless parody of the government’s health warning STAY ALERT:
 

It was incredibly public-spirited of Cummings to provide the whole nation (apart from Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked) with a hate figure we can all unite in detesting. Suddenly, even the divines are revolting. The bishop of Penrith, Emma Ineson, exclaims “Goodness, Dominic Cummings must be really, really valuable to Johnson to be worth what he’s just risked by backing him, i.e. the trust of the British people.” She doesn’t mention – not even in passing – Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Transport’s, momentous news concerning the A66 and its dualling all the way to… Penrith.

26 MAY

It was a stroke of genius to send the slimy Gove out to defend Cummings – his best mate and a man you wouldn’t trust if there was a market for grandmothers. That fable about Barnard Castle could have been the one the Russian ‘tourists’ told about Salisbury. Gaslighting. Nice to know Cummings picked up something useful during his spell in Russia.
The albatross looks like staying round Johnson’s neck a while yet, and it stinks more with every passing day. I have just watched a PM lose all his authority, seen him visibly shredding it before my eyes, at a press conference. He became (before questions were even asked) a mere man in a suit. Hasn’t even heard the old instruction about not digging when you’re in a hole. He never seemed like a Prime Minister; it’s now crystal clear who our actual Prime Minister is. The Tories will not be as loyal to him as he has been to Rasputin. End of two shabby political careers?

27 MAY

Regarding the Star’s cut-out mask of Dominic Cummings, will the country soon be like a poster for the film Being John Malkovich?
We’re all would-be flouters now. Even the tits sound like they’re protesting over their confinement.
What a perfect story Cummings has provided the nation with in its hour of need. Surely, it’s only a matter of time before the balding American actor with the weird eyes gets to play Dom in a film entitled Being Reasonable, a gripping account of one megalomaniac’s midnight flight from the locked down metropolis in a fit of paternal instinct. It will run for an entire two hundred and sixty miles and only become thrilling for the last four, when his wife and son complain that they’re dying for the loo. “I told you to go before we left. You’ll just have to hold it in. Can’t you see this is a lockdown?” I can already see the harassed look on Malkovich’s face as those final, agonising four miles appear to go on forever.
Liars of the calibre of Dominic Cummings can even bend time, apparently. His blog has been altered to suggest he had foreknowledge of the pandemic, and one of his reasons for fleeing the pestilence in Islington was the targeting of his house, which certainly has happened lately, but which certainly did not happen before he became the poster boy of the elite, when everyone (his critics included) was confined to barracks by the lockdown. Time is a trivial matter when you are a misanthropic egotist with a pre-eminent genius for self-deception. However, when you are charged with telling other people what to do, that way Madness lies: Oh, what fun we had, but did it really turn out bad? All I learnt at school was how to bend not break the rules.

28 MAY

I know, it’s easy to criticise with hindsight, but maybe the government’s slogan STAY HOME would have been clearer (and more honest) if it had been KNOW YOUR PLACE. When there’s a national crisis, it is very important that unquestioning forelock tugging is maintained by all serfs, and that the privileged classes are able to move freely from pestilential areas to remote estates for safety. The basic reasonableness of this policy hasn’t changed since the days of Boccaccio.
Well, it’s certainly enhanced Cummings’s visibility, all this. There’s not just a danger he’ll eclipse the Prime Minister; soon he’ll be more famous than Benedict Cumberbatch himself. About time a new Brexit coin was struck with his head on it. Laurels would not go amiss.
 




The chirpy Chris Packham

1 JUNE, SECOND HAPPY MONDAY

The great tits’ lockdown has finally ended. Nice timing, fellas. I woke to find no sounds coming from the nest box.
My wife and I feel bereft. They might at least have followed the script in Springwatch, the BBC’s nature programme, and poked their little heads out before flying down, one by one, into the wisteria. But no, they stole out under cover of dawn chorus and could be in France by now for all we know. Meanwhile, the Tory press are declaring Happy Monday again, as if it’s all over. You must be twisting my melon, man. Only the very greatest tits among us would behave as if the danger has passed.

3 JUNE

Our next-door neighbour is very dismissive of Springwatch (compares it to Blue Peter). I reckon the slightly misjudged tone of the presenters is to blame, a bit too chirpy, but taken as a whole it’s excellent. 

We’ve started hearing the chicks in the nearby bush, just audible over the drone of bees on the blossom. The male, still completely manic, comes back for the odd mealworm and takes it to them. We also have a robin that comes for the mealworms that the sparrows, messy eaters, have tossed to the ground. 

Our lockdown is definitely not over. Last night, with silvery moonlight bathing the backyards and the occasional solar lamp glowing, I leant out of the window in a trance, feeling a little bit like Sir Walter must have felt when he finally gave up writing his history of the world. I felt remarkably content. May have been experiencing a uniquely pleasant case of passive smoking, as someone had lit a spliff. I would have been chirpier than Chris Packham himself if I’d had some of my own.