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2 January 2019

Howard Jacobson’s Diary: I turn on the radio, primed for apoplexy, and discover only family entertainment

For one whole half hour I have not seen the faces of those lying, scheming, conniving, despicable  scumbags who claim to be acting in the national interest.  

By Howard Jacobson

Having spent the year complaining that every day begins with a snakepit of Leavers hissing their support for the Will of the People, and my wife saying “then don’t turn on the radio”, I turn on the radio and am disappointed to find only innocuous family entertainment. Has there been a coup? Then I remember – it’s Christmas Day. Ho Ho Ho. All very well, but I’ve been programmed for apoplexy since 2016 and can’t function without some idiocy to shout down. Shaking the parboiled potatoes in a pan to fluff up their edges uses up some rage – though I have to start again when I see I have fluffed the potatoes to a dry mash – and after a sit-down with my head in my hands I realise I have stumbled on the real meaning of Christmas. Peace. For one whole half hour I have not seen the faces of those lying, scheming, conniving, despicable, reprehensible scumbags who claim to be acting in the national interest. A hundred more Christmases and I might forget the sound of their voices.

Wages of sin

The weather being mild, I take a morning stroll through Soho. It’s lovely with everything closed and none of the desperate merry-making of its evening self. I am not turning against what Soho’s for. If anything I regret how much of its lubriciousness has been lost to bubble tea, designer trainer shops and truffle-makers: we didn’t come to Soho when I was young to blow our student grants on running shoes and sea-salted caramels. But even what night-raving remains lacks spontaneity. Everyone is trying too hard. The effect, I suspect, of wanting not to face where those despicable, reprehensible etc etc scumbags are taking us.

On the prowl

There are fewer shops in Soho selling torture equipment than there used to be. Who needs artificial pain when there’s so much of the real thing around? A nicely dressed family of tourists – Mama, Papa, and three children aged from about five to ten in matching scarves – stare into the window of Prowler, scrutinising the fetish wares. I think I hear the youngest asking, “Did you wear a nipple clamp before you had us, Daddy?” but I might be mistaken. A more gregarious person would wish them Merry Christmas and point them in the direction of the truffle shop.

Courting approval

I settle down to watch RBG, a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, whose only error of judgement in a long life of scrupulous advocacy has been to publicly call Trump a “faker”. Not much of an error compared to voting for him. Halfway through I find myself fighting back tears. Nothing is more moving than a life dedicated to seriousness. Even as a young woman that seriousness burned in her face like the beauty of thought. Which isn’t to say she can’t be funny. In Venice recently I watched her preside over a staged retrial of Shylock. She was so small you could barely see her above the bench. She found in Shylock’s favour, naturally, awarding him his original 3,000 ducats – on which she was not prepared to calculate the 400 years of interest – and sending Portia for correction in the finer points of court procedure to Padua University’s Law School. You can be funny without being frivolous. I think of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, also unfrivolous and dedicated to doing good, but unfulfilled. What would she have given to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Too many tweets

Banks open and Today programme back to normal. The villainous seem not to have returned from their holidays as far away as possible from the people they pretend to revere, but there are other exasperations. The moment a conversation turns interesting the presenter asks the speaker to be brief as they are running out of time. To which the only answer is: “If there’s no effing time to discuss what I’m here to discuss, why did you invite me to discuss it in the first place, and – and! – why is so much of the little time there is taken up by your interruptions?” This edition is guest-edited by Martha Lane Fox, who is “on the board of Twitter”. What is it about that phrase that is so sublimely absurd? The board of Twitter.

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World of Light

I have tuned in to catch the score from the Boxing Day Test Match in Melbourne. Australia vs India. Though I love most things Australian I don’t love their cricket teams and like them to be thrashed. But they are devils, Australian cricketers, and don’t succumb to defeat as meekly as English cricketers, who are born masochists and probably buy their protectors from Prowler. I have a particular, and particularly sad, interest in the Boxing Day Test this year. In past times, whenever I visited Melbourne I’d go to the Tests with Geoff Missen, a geographer, painter, lover of Matisse, and true fauvist in himself. He is one of three Australian men I have loved who died in the last 12 months. It is only right, now I have named him, that I name the others: Peter Shrubb, short-story writer, teacher, paterfamilias, second father to me; and Peter Nicholls, an old combatant mate, wholly original, and co-editor of The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction – an enterprise I had no reason to scorn, but did, mainly because I liked the drunken arguments that ensued, pitting Isaac Asimov against Jane Austen. One way or another they animated my life for five decades. Now they are all gone into the World of Light…

Radio gaga

I wake shouting at the radio before it’s on. “So will you still uphold the democratic rights of the people when they vote to sack the houses of the wealthy, Mr Rees-Mogg?” My wife proposes a calming walk in the park. Lovely idea. “So tell me,” I ask one of the smaller birds, “how do you fancy a seat on the board of Twitter?” 

Howard Jacobson is the author of “Pussy” and “Shylock is My Name”

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This article appears in the 02 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions