‘Tis the season to be jolly. That said, has there ever been a more depressing time apart from the two world wars? I don’t think the Three-Day Week or the Winter of Discontent were this bad. Sure, in those days there was no hot water, little electric light to speak of, bin bags were piled up on the street and the dead lay unburied. It was truly miserable. The difference then was we could at least see what we had to deal with and adjusted accordingly. We showered in the dark, had forkfuls of congealed soup for breakfast, and watched children out in the street playing with the dead. We at least had tangible things to be miserable about. Happy days.
Now, though, we don’t have any obvious visual sources of our dissatisfaction. Instead a very abstract cloud of anger and frustration sits above us. A deep foreboding, of deals not done or deadlines missed, abysses being stared into, cliff edges being peered over and nightmare scenarios being gamed on every piece of financial software available.
Across the world, things are brewing into we-don’t-know-what. Donald Trump does amazingly bizarre things, but the thing we still fear most is the one monumentally bizarre thing he has yet to do. At home, we are suspicious of anything anyone has to say, we disagree with almost everyone else’s opinion, and given our volatility in recent votes, the one judgement we’re most dubious about is our own.
In reality, a lot of people are hurting, and many are scared; but no one seems to be able to tell them why. Even one of our most prominent economic commentators, Robert Peston, has to call his new book on what’s happening WTF. I’m writing this on a day in which one think tank says poverty has gone down while another says it’s gone up. The truth is, we don’t know what Truth is any more. Facts are treated no better than fiction, we’re left relying only on gut beliefs, while around us a cold and cruel miasma is coming down on the world like a dark snow.
Death becomes him
’Tis also the season to mention Jesus. I had a Catholic upbringing, and generally lapped up all the stories about miracles and ascensions into heaven, which I saw as genuine – but very special – Fact. I managed to swallow the whole eat-my-body thing, and had no trouble taking the Gospels as gospel truth, even though they began with four completely different descriptions of the birth of Jesus and ended with four very different versions of his death. These inconsistencies were explained as Mysteries.
Then I tripped up over the central tenet of the Christian message. I could never get anyone to explain to me specifically why Jesus had to die to save us from our sins. Why physically die for something he didn’t do, and then, somehow, because what he’d just done was really really good, it meant something even worse was no longer going to happen to us? It’s as if James Bond stopped Blofeld blowing up the world by shooting himself in the mouth. The Crucifixion is just a very bad plot point. It makes no sense, and if it were in a film audiences would be coming out saying, “I didn’t quite get the ending. Loved the bit where the guy cut off another guy’s ear, though.”
Religious belief is on the decline in Britain, but I doubt general belief is. Watching the strange way politics conducts itself now, it seems more than ever to be a contest of beliefs rather than an exchange of arguments. Political leaders advocate their positions as mysterious truths that just are, rather than as conclusions arrived at after expert examination of evidence. We have, after all, had enough of Experts. So, I sat throughout the Brexit debate rather like I did as a child beginning to question the central tenet of my religious faith. I simply couldn’t get anyone to explain to me how you close our borders and trade with the rest of the world at the same time. People I asked said, “It’ll just be so, don’t worry.” And now, I get no answer to the question: “How can you do amazing deals with countries that know you’re really desperate?” The answer? “Because we will.” Another Mystery, I think.
Remains of the day
I sometimes do wonder if our current Brexit muddle is caused not just by the confused theology of the Brexiteers attempting to push it through, but by the rabid pessimism of the Remainers choosing to sit and jeer at the sidelines, almost willing the thing to be the prize-winning disaster they fear. I voted Remain and I lost. But I voted Remain because I wanted this country to be as good as it can be. And I don’t help to make it so by refusing to participate in the debate over what kind of country this should be once we leave the EU. Brexit is going to happen, so do we make the best of it or facilitate the worst? Do we argue for Britain to be a generous, welcoming, creative and diverse country, or do we sit that argument out and watch it turn into the cold, inward, and unimaginative country only a minority of us actually wish it to be?
The best medicine
Maybe my New Year’s resolution should be to have at least one positive thought a day. I’m sure thinking positive helps. Medical experts have shown that the physical act of laughing releases endorphins that help boost mental confidence. The funniest thing I heard recently was Graeme Garden on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue coming up with a form of words that would help the others guess the title of the film Blade Runner. “Sorry to interrupt you in the bathroom, but I couldn’t help notice you’re trying to shave with a type of bean.”
Armando Iannucci’s new book on music, “Hear Me Out”, is published by Little, Brown
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special