A text pings in. It’s from the excellent Ayesha Hazarika and it’s a glorious twist on what used to happen. For years, Ayesha worked for some of the biggest names in the Labour Party, including Ed Miliband. Political correspondents like me would ring her and say something along the lines of, “I’ve heard such and such has happened, is that right?” But the tables were turned. Ayesha now edits the London Evening Standard’s diary. She had got wind that I’d been offered the Any Questions presenting gig on Radio 4. Was it true? she asked.
Well, yes it was. But I was still trying to work out, with the BBC and my wife, the practicalities of combining being a political correspondent, presenting Brexitcast and taking on Any Questions, while having two preschool children. It was time to do a deal with Ayesha. If you hold off on the story until I’ve sorted it all out, you can have it as an exclusive, I said. Granted, it’s not exactly a page one corker, but a little media-political-land tale nonetheless. Suddenly, it’s me in the role of special adviser/media manipulator with a pesky reporter on the blower.
Ayesha was true to her word and so was I. Once the new job was confirmed I gave her the nod and went to playgroup with the Mason urchins. Phones are banned in there. When I turned it back on, it started doing the can-can in my pocket. The news was out.
Later in the day I was in Westminster, where I bumped into some of the Extinction Rebellion crowd who have taken up residence right outside the newsroom window. Millbank is many things, but I’d never thought of it as a potential campsite before. Not that I am a regular visitor to places festooned with guy ropes, as someone near-allergic to the idea of spending the night in a sleeping bag. A couple of campers shout amiably in my direction: “about time you got out of the Westminster bubble and found out what really matters, like the future of the planet.” “I don’t think I need to, you’ve moved in here!” I josh back.
It’s boom time for roofers
A few days earlier I’d had the joy of spending the afternoon waiting for a roofer at home after water started leaking through the doorframe of our bathroom. He gave short shrift to climate change sceptics – he reckons the rain is coming down harder these days. He should know. It’s his job to keep it out.
The German Jabberwocky
We’ve taken a few days off to head to Stow-on-the-Wold. Within half an hour of arriving, my mum is clutching a green ring-binder and regaling us with details of the rubbish collections. The recycling is collected every second Tuesday. Then, my father-in-law says, “Norma is as selfless as I am Ron.” He’s got hold of a dusty tome from the shelf of our holiday cottage. “Now that’s an interesting sentence,” he adds. It turns out he’s reading A Christmas Cracker by John Julius Norwich, from 1980, which also, it transpires, discusses a translation of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” into German.
Anyone got any chinos?
One of the joys of being a political correspondent and being a bloke is the uniform. Suit and tie. I’ve tested this theory to destruction: you can wear the same suit – and, if push comes to washing machine-avoiding -shove, the same shirt – for several days in a row. No one will notice. Plus, suits are a wonderful leveller. A suit is a suit. Throw it on, walk out the door. A joy for those of us who are not exactly slaves to fashion. Hence the look of sheer horror on my wife’s face on hearing the news about Any Questions. Only one of my casual shirts has passed her ruthless “fit to be seen in public” test. I might have to break my rule of going clothes shopping no more than once a decade.
Flights of fancy
I’m discovering that children, particularly your own, have the capacity to provoke admiration and irritation simultaneously. I love the conversations we have with our eldest daughter, who’s nearly four, that are 80 per cent drivel, but delivered with gusto. I suppose she’s learned that knack from someone. I head into her room as she wakes up and she treats me to a story about her favourite teddy, “Rabbitdog” – a creature christened as such because we’ve never been able to work out whether her heritage is canine or friend of Flopsy. I’m told “Rabbitdog woke up in the night, and she was thirsty. But she spilt her water all over my bed.” A complete fabrication, of course. Rabbitdog’s water would never be that colour. There’s another reason for the damp duvet.
One of the joys of travelling around the UK is the rich vocabulary you encounter. My new favourite word: “tures” – the Gloucestershire term for the narrow passages running into a market square that were used to count sheep. We’d call a similar alley a “snicket” or a “ginnel” back home in the Yorkshire Dales. And my wife tells me they call them a “twitchell” in Nottinghamshire.
Talking of language, back to “Norma is as selfless as I am Ron”. It’s a palindrome – assemble each letter in the sentence starting with the last one, and you end up with the same sentence. Meeting yourself coming backwards. A bit like reporting on Brexit.
Chris Mason is a BBC political correspondent and the new presenter of “Any Questions”
This article appears in the 16 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war