Entering my seventies, I wanted some change. Admittedly, I had twice refused to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. Too radical. I chose instead to give up three staples: the Guardian, theatregoing and alcohol. Each has had mixed results. I miss the Guardian’s news pages but its arts coverage was driving me mad. I don’t mean the critics. They are what they are, and always will be. Far more dismaying was the absence of any featured analysis of what any work of art was actually about. For the Guardian, arts are purely an adjunct of lifestyle. They’re a box-tick.
Countless columnists loved advertising how on-trend they were by praising, for instance, Killing Eve. It was when, after 25 identical articles in praise of Killing Eve there followed the inevitable article about why Killing Eve was overrated that, after 55 years, I jumped ship. The first day I switched to the Times there was a two-page profile of Philip Glass. At the end – this is a high compliment – I hadn’t even noticed the journalist’s name, nor had they intruded their opinions. The piece was all about Glass, his music and nothing else.
It was a defeat finally to buy a Murdoch newspaper. In 1985, Howard Brenton and I had satirised his conquest of the British establishment in the play Pravda. Anthony Hopkins had gripped a theatre audience as tightly as anyone can. The authors vowed at the time never to give money to a newspaper owner who was so proudly indifferent to the misery he caused.
But then it was also odd to stop buying theatre tickets. It had nothing to do with quality. Seasons that had delivered The Jungle, The Lehman Trilogy and The Ferryman were as rich as any in recent memory. But I was no longer getting the buzz. There was a life-time of enthralment behind me, but patterns seemed to be becoming familiar. Occasionally a writer would find a new subject – Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig wrote a terrific play about inequality between town and country in China – but more and more often, the ghosts of evenings past seemed to be winking at the new.
A very prescient abstinence
The alcohol thing happened unintentionally. Last August I just stopped. A few months later, I got ill, and every day I felt grateful that I wasn’t medicating with drink. The abstinence, it turned out, had been a weird kind of prescience. It was my body telling me to prepare for trouble ahead. Then, in March, I got Covid-19. Since I was unable to keep down a cup of tea or a biscuit, the idea of a glass of wine seemed far-fetched.
Because I then spoke on Radio 4 about my experience, I received a lot of fascinating feedback. I was laughing with my wife, Nicole, about one contact who told me of the delusions he had suffered during his illness, when Nicole reminded me that I had woken one fevered morning and, when asked how I was, replied: “One of my bodies is fine, but the others aren’t great.” I had gone on to explain that the virus had divided me into several separate identities which all slept in the bed together side by side. Rightly, Nicole suggested that at that moment I forfeited the right to mock others.
The Keynesian solution
When I did come round from 18 days of hell, I couldn’t believe that Dominic Cummings was still banging on about Brexit. He’s like a pub bore who wants to buttonhole you and tell you the Freemasons run YouTube. How can anyone so completely misjudge the public mood? Most of us don’t want to accelerate yet another act of harm to the economy. We want to address things that actually matter, like how a government that made such an indolent mess of getting us into lockdown imagines it can lead us out. No one can explain why the same Keynesian socialism which was unequivocally right for saving the world twice in the past 12 years is unequivocally wrong as a more long-term remedy. Capitalists who turn to socialism only in crisis are like those spiritual cowards who turn to God only when their lives are threatened, then revert to atheism when the pressure’s off.
Cummings likes to pose as an idiot savant. He’s got the idiot bit down. It’s the savant he can’t pull off. His childhood obsessions with the EU, the BBC and the civil service seem so last century.
Art with a touch of evil
One advantage of my new life is that I have time to read fiction. When I finished Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, I couldn’t believe there was any writer who could get so close to the despair of young working-class women in prisons. But then when I read Anne Enright’s Actress, I thought nobody could get so close to how actors truly behave and feel.
I also watch more television. Like most viewers, I enjoyed Succession, about a media dynasty. Who wouldn’t? The acting is gorgeous, and the dialogue sublime. But something important is missing. The writers don’t really hate Murdoch or his kind. They think executives telling each other to eff off is funny. Funny, but not threatening. So although it’s less polished, the excitement is much greater in The Loudest Voice, a mini-series about Roger Ailes who, before his disgrace, did so much to popularise deliberately falsifying television. Its great power is that its makers really loathe Fox News. It’s Jonathan Swift to Succession’s Punch magazine. Add in a couple of great performances – Sienna Miller deeply disturbing as the definitive Wife-Who-Stands-By-Her-Monster and Russell Crowe doing a mesmerising physical transformation into a sort of huge, puffy, balletic toad – and you feel this programme has an element that lifts entertainment into art: a sense of evil.
This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave