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10 December 2020

Helen Lewis’s notebook: The hubris of Cummings, and how to play Have I Got Lewis for You

It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the downfall of Dominic Cummings. The eye test! The “Nasa-style control room”! 

By Helen Lewis

One of the joys of marriage is discovering the peculiarities of a whole new family. My in-laws are absolute fiends for quizzing, kicking off with a picture round on Christmas Eve, detouring through my father-in-law’s homemade Only Connect sliders after the turkey lunch, and perhaps formulating new proofs for Fermat’s Last Theorem on Boxing Day. This year I’ve decided to spread the gospel of quizzing to my own family, with a Zoom session called Have I Got Lewis for You. Sample question: according to the Office for National Statistics, how many babies called Jesus were born in England and Wales in 2019? (Answer at the bottom of the page.)

Barnard Castled

It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the downfall of Dominic Cummings. The eye test! The “Nasa-style control room”! The bit where his old blog was mysteriously edited to look prescient about a pandemic! Every utterance was like a press release from the Department of Hubris. The most narratively satisfying bit of the story, though, was that an advocate of superforecasting couldn’t predict that making enemies of half the Tory party and falling out with his boss’s fiancée was a poor career move. It reminded me of how Kelvin MacKenzie sacked the Sun’s astrologer. The letter began: “As you will already know…”

Annus Horribilis

Not many people have had a good 2020. The former Conservative politician Rory Stewart is one of the few. “Evidence from other pandemics is that closing schools and large gatherings earlier rather than later stops the peaks of this kind of disease,” he argued on 10 March. He got buckets of manure in response. “It is irresponsible to be second-guessing expert advice,” said Dr Clare Gerada, a former chair of the Royal College of GPs. The Mail on Sunday’s resident doctor Ellie Cannon tweeted: “Where is your data to back up these wild ideas?”

Guess what? Stewart was right, and the medical “experts” – who were not virologists or epidemiologists – were wrong. A fortnight later, the country was in full ­lockdown, with schools closed and all non-essential businesses shut.

It has become fashionable for well-educated liberals to sneer at “low information voters” for, say, not listening to expert warnings about the economic impact of leaving the EU. But every “expert” who talks out of their arse must share the blame.

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[see also: Commons Confidential: Shop-soiled mannequins]

London’s Parthenon

Rory Stewart also wins Hatchet Job of the Year, for his review of Tom Bower’s biography of the Prime Minister. “On Boris Johnson’s desk in No 10 stands a bust of the Athenian leader Pericles – his ‘hero’ and ‘inspiration’ for 40 years,” Stewart wrote in the TLS. “But Pericles built the Parthenon, not the Emirates Cable Car.” Stewart’s unshowy use of intellectual references – Aristotle, St Augustine, Machiavelli – remind the reader of the difference between someone with a genuine love of the classics and someone who treats them like a party piece.

Screen burn

When I finished writing Difficult Women in 2019, I remember thinking: oh good, no more writing at my dining table for days on end! That was my own bit of Cummingsian hubris, because I’ve done nothing else since March. For a little light relief at 6pm, I move three feet to the sofa and look at my TV screen instead. At least it has been a great year for television: the BBC’s Giri/Haji (the most original crime drama I’ve watched in ages); Devs (trippy and gorgeous); Normal People (tender and beautifully written) and I May Destroy You (undefinable and brilliant); HBO’s Lovecraft Country (bonkers); Netflix’s Love Is Blind (pro tip: don’t propose to someone you’ve never seen); and ITV’s Des (David Tennant reveals the banality of evil, in a mac). In a normal year, I never would have watched all of that.

[see also: The best TV of Christmas 2020]

Last of the magicians

I’m writing a new book, and it has involved uncovering the deep oddness of many of history’s most impressive people. The medieval astronomer Tycho Brahe, for example, wore a gold nose because his own had been sliced off in a duel. Isaac Newton pretty much abandoned maths once he’d discovered gravity and calculus – admittedly, not a bad life’s work – to pursue his real interests in alchemy and biblical chronology. (“Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians,” said JM Keynes.) The physicist Henry Cavendish hated small talk so he once fled a party squealing like a bat, and he would only communicate with female servants via written memos. He’d have loved social distancing rules.

Sharknado’s place in history

“My whole concept of history has been shattered ever since I saw someone say ‘Rosa Parks died in 2005, meaning she could’ve watched Shrek,” tweeted Harry from Leicester earlier this year. These kinds of temporal pile-ups blow my mind: Bruce Forsyth was born before Anne Frank, for example. The travel writer Jan Morris – who reported that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had conquered Everest in 1953 – lived until November this year, long enough to watch all six Sharknado films. (No idea if she did, though.) Norgay lived long enough to watch the first Beverly Hills Cop, and Hillary to see Mean Girls. The last century has been quite a trip, huh?

Mystery revealed

Six mothers had a baby Jesus last year: the same number as had a “Justice” or “Oslo”. 


This column is part of the New Statesman Christmas Special, also featuring Helen Macdonald, Tracey Thorn, Grayson Perry, Armando Iannucci, Joni Mitchell, Ian Hislop, John Gray, Stephen Bush, Jacqueline Wilson, William Boyd and much more of the best new writing.