I’ve never known such a time for news. Wave after wave, in it comes, the first big cycle of events that I’ve experienced on Twitter.
Michael Gove might have said we are tired of experts, but Twitter is the home of the self-styled expert. I often doubt my own expertise and I hate uncertainty, so I go there looking for facts and opinions, but never reach the end. Twitter is also full of people who love a panic, or the sound of their own voice, and neither type is any good for me.
On referendum night I’d hunkered down on the sofa with snacks and wine. There’d be no exit poll, but someone told me to watch what sterling did at 10pm. The banks had commissioned private polls, so if sterling fell, that would be bad news for the Remain side. The thought flitted through my head, “Who the hell do I think I am, pretending to know about the value of sterling?” But Twitter had convinced me that I was qualified to talk about such things.
This is just the start. Days pass, the situation unravels, I worry and worry, and I read and read – countless think pieces on who’ll resign next, 50 articles on Article 50. It rains and it rains, thunder rattles the windows and Ben is away on tour, so I huddle with others on Twitter for warmth, taking comfort in each other’s dismay, fanning the flames of each other’s wild thoughts. I break out in eczema, which I can’t help thinking of as Breczema because, God help me, like everyone else, I have gone slightly mad.
I read, in these pages, Stephen Bush’s article comparing support for Brexit in Hull and Hampstead and, having lived in both places, I understand exactly what he’s talking about. And I get angry with someone who tweets snidely that Hull is about to be European City of Culture but voted Leave, hahaha, bloody idiots. Defensive on Hull’s behalf, I’m about to start ranting that it’s UK City of Culture, not European, and anyway, just what point is he trying to make? That Hull, of all the neglected, maligned, proudly-soldiering-on places, doesn’t deserve, or doesn’t need a year of attention and investment and celebration? I catch myself. One tweet and I retreat, remembering my golden rule about not getting drawn into pointless arguments on Twitter. Everyone’s on edge at the moment. Everyone’s an expert. We’re all on the brink of saying something stupid every minute of the day.
Luckily I have a short holiday booked with one of the kids, walking around Hay-on-Wye, and I leave London half hoping I won’t be able to get a phone signal and that the wifi in the Airbnb won’t work properly. A train to Hereford and then a bone-shaking bus ride along the winding lanes to Hay, and we take refuge in our little flat over a dress shop, with a balcony looking out over the hills. Birdsong, sheep bleating in the distance, Wimbledon on the telly, the soothing plock plock of the balls, the bark of a line judge. John McEnroe being accurate and unforgiving in that nasal voice that whisks me back to my childhood, Mum watching the tennis with the curtains tightly drawn on a sunny day. He’s an expert, I think. I like listening to him.
We buy salt caramel fudge, and gin (the kid is 18), and make up a picnic and go for a walk that, like so many country walks, consists in large part of walking round and round a field looking for a stile or a gate, and then repeating the process in the next field. We picnic under a tree, surrounded by sheep that eye us suspiciously. One has a hacking cough; otherwise, there’s just the hum of summer silence. A tractor rumbling. The odd midge.
But back at the holiday flat the wifi is good and I can’t escape the news, because I’m addicted to it, so I’m only part relaxed. The road signs are all in Welsh and English, and we take another walk. The guidebook keeps telling us when we’ve crossed a border. “You are now in England,” it says. “You are now back in Wales.” I like this kind of border. It seems open and friendly, more or less fictional. I think about the other kind.
The next morning the Chilcot report comes in, and it starts raining.
This article appears in the 13 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM