A couple of weeks ago a letter was published in these pages suggesting that my colleague Pippa Bailey and I move in together so that our respective columns would be a little less miserable. I can see the logic behind this but I am afraid the proposal has not been fully thought through. For one thing, Ms Bailey might be a columnist at this magazine but she is also involved in the production team, which means that in some respects she is my boss, and I shy away from letting too much daylight into the magic of how this column is written. Just as a friend told me “My niece works for the Foreign Office, and however thick you think Liz Truss is, you’re underestimating it”, however much time you think I spend in bed, you’re underestimating it.
And problems can even arise when I get out of bed. I once sent an email to my editor. “Woe is me,” I said, or words to that effect. “I am too poorly to write my column today; may I file tomorrow, assuming the gods permit me to live that long?” And who should I run into at the Lord’s Test match (for that had been my plan all along) but Jason Cowley, the very editor-in-chief? I mean there were 25,000 people in the ground. What were the odds? This is why I stay in bed.
These days I am honest and truthful when I cannot deliver my words on the appointed day. There are only two valid excuses: illness, and an inability to write anything that is not a howl of anguish. There have to be some jokes in here. That’s the point of me, isn’t it? But this week and last week have been difficult. Last week I was catatonic with despair at the prospect of Liz Truss becoming prime minister; this week I am c with d at the actuality. I know this is not the place to belabour the point, but really. Protecting energy companies’ profits and making the taxpayer foot the bill; appointing Jacob Rees-Mogg and Suella Braverman; there isn’t much to joke about there.
On the night that the votes of Tory members were being counted, there was an incredible thunderstorm just off the coast. I stayed up to watch it and, as the final tick was placed against Truss’s name, the firmament directly above me burst with a gigantic crack, the loudest thunder-clap I have ever heard in my life, and I thought: this is it – we’re doomed. And I know that this was probably a coincidence, and that there are no such things as omens, but it made me not at all confident that the Conservatives will be thrown out at the next election. Not for the first time, I reflect on the fact – and maybe it was the thought of portents that diverted my train of thought back down the centuries – that one ancient Greek word for “one’s own countrymen” is “ἰδιὠται”, pronounced “idiotai”.
So I try to think of things that are nice, or funny. I’m running a bit dry on the latter. But even when the country is circling the plughole, pleasant things can happen within it. Unfortunately they are very much at the local scale. I went up to East Finchley to cook a Sunday roast for my mother and my children, plus one of their girlfriends. While I cooked, the young ones played cricket in the garden. After lunch the others sat round the card table playing Casino while I, stuffed, rummaged in a box of my books and came up with the oldest one I own, a French 1681 edition of St Augustine I bought in Toulouse 20 years ago for ten quid. I lay on the sofa, opened it at random, and came across this bit (my translation): “Who are you still? You are a shadowy abyss of ignorance and vice; a scorched and sterile desert; a child of the anger of God; a fitting receptacle for the occasions of shame and ignominy; your birth is in filth, your life wretched, your death crowded with terrors; you are nothing but a dung heap in the guise of a man,” etc.
I say, Gus, that’s laying it on a bit thick, I thought; and then realised, actually, this more or less captures my mood at the moment. (Not that precise moment, of course. I was enjoying my family and was a fitting receptacle not just for the occasions of shame and ignominy, but also half a leg of lamb and about 50 roast potatoes.)
I enjoyed reading this so much that when I got back home I picked up the 800-page second volume of Chateaubriand’s memoirs that the publishers NYRB had kindly sent me. I did not know his stuff but it was a revelation, and I am very happily getting stuck in. “Life fitted me badly; death, perhaps, will suit me better,” he once said; people call him a Romantic but I’m getting some very Beckettian top notes. (This is a good thing.)
But then what’s Chateaubriand got to moan about? He might have lived through the violence and bloodshed of the French Revolution, but at least he never had to put up with the shame and ignominy – honte et ignominie – of having Liz Truss as his prime minister.
And then the Queen died. As if things weren’t bad enough already.
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession