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3 March 2021

Stuart Maconie’s Diary: Grief in lockdown, the rise of canal-side courting and why I’m still quizzing

With no pubs ­or restaurants, it’s as if we’ve returned to Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, where awkward young farmhands called on beloveds to go walking after church...

By Stuart Maconie

“In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life,” said Robert Frost. “It goes on.” Certainly, that’s the ­abiding lesson I’ve taken from lockdown. During it, I lost my mum and gained a new little grandson. Not even pandemics can stop what Wordsworth called the rolling of “Earth’s diurnal round”.

Mum’s passing was sad of course. But her send-off, though muted perforce, was sweet. My parents were married 60-odd years but the last couple had not been easy, with my mum ill and unhappy, fluctuating between hospitals and care homes. So, mixed in with the grief is a certain guilty relief. ­Liberated from the burden of constant ­caring, Dad, who is approaching 90, is now opening up to new experiences. He’s reading Anthony Trollope and has become an armchair expert on European football after a lifetime of devotion to the rugby league.

No longer constrained by Mum’s ultra-conservative taste in food, which regarded a tin of Heinz Ravioli to be as outlandish as the rancid yak butter tea of the Mongolian high steppes, Dad is taking baby steps into the foothills of international cuisine – sweet and sour pork, lasagne and chicken tikka masala – all of which he described to me as “bloody marvellous”. All very heartening. But as he is from Wigan, it’s only a matter of time ­before he wants them in a crust.

Celebrity players

I know it’s fashionable among the professional opinionaters to decry them, but I have no problem whatsoever with that much-mocked lockdown standby, the Zoom quiz. I do two for fun every week, one of them with what I refer to with mild irony as my “showbiz chums”. So I can tell you that what Charlie Higson doesn’t know about military history, or what Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy doesn’t know about the ­paintings by the Euston Road School, isn’t really worth knowing.

Last week I added to this my professional obligation as a member of radio’s longest running and most fiendishly cryptic interrogation, Radio 4’s Round Britain Quiz, or RBQ as the hip kids on the block call it. Recording at a distance over Zoom may not have produced any anarchy to compete with the Handforth Parish Council meetings but it did have its moments; such as when question master Tom Sutcliffe asked why I had a picture of a donkey on my bookshelf (long story) and Paul Sinha enjoying a white chocolate Magnum during a particularly knotty round. Try to picture this as you listen over the next few weeks.

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Rambling first dates

Following a bloodless coup four years ago, I became president of Ramblers GB, the august body that represents the walkers of Britain. For some years now we’ve been trying to extoll the virtues of recreational walking to all kinds of new and different groups of people through various means. The one thing we didn’t consider was a global pandemic, such as the one that has overnight made walking one of the few things people can do for fun and health.

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I’ve been putting in several miles of canal walking every weekend and the slurping, glutinous mud of the towpaths tells you that numbers are up. This weekend I noticed something else too; the walkers are different. Added to the usual ruddy men in bobble hats are scores of presentable young couples in fashionable outerwear. This weekend it dawned on me why. With no pubs, ­or restaurants to do their courting in, the couples I saw, sipping takeaway coffees, laughing excitedly at one another’s jokes, and generally being adorable, were clearly on first dates.

[see also: Why England’s inhumane sex ban must now end]

It’s as if we’ve returned to Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, where awkward young farmhands, fiddling with their caps, called on their beloveds to go walking after church. The Leeds and Liverpool Canal now ­stages its own version of the passeggiata, the collective stroll still traditional in Italian squares, where giggling youngsters eye each other up as their families promenade in their Sunday best. There’s not much I want to keep of these times. But this I hope stays.

The sick man of Europe

My book The Nanny State Made Me is out in paperback this week. It first appeared last March, a few days before every bookshop in Britain closed indefinitely. On the plus side, however, Covid-19 has proven an odd but effective marketing tool. The book’s thrust is that 50 years of sneering at the public ­sector and deriding the notion of a benevolent state – while simultaneously dismantling and flogging off every asset we have, drunk on a heady cocktail of incompetence, chicanery and cronyism – has left us where we are now. Which is, quite literally, the sick man of Europe.

Maybe the tide has turned. A trivial point perhaps but I haven’t heard much hoopla around the return of The Apprentice or Dragon’s Den, those odious examples of macho boardroom porn. Unlike the increasingly reclusive Michael Gove, I don’t think that people have had enough of experts. But I do think that they may have lost their ­appetite for the kind of bullying, bad-haired “entrepreneur” who sacks his staff and bleats for a handout the minute the going gets tough. Let’s hope so.

Oh Captain! My Captain!

If your Zoom quizzes are anything like mine, the chat during the “drinks interval” is as important as the questions. Last week, we grudgingly agreed that the government’s “road map” to normality was just the kind of clarity that we needed, albeit hugely ­overdue and at an appalling cost.

As the vaccine roll-out proves a continuing success, for once “world-beating” doesn’t seem a meretricious boast. One of our quizzers, the actor Rhys Thomas, captured my mixed feelings brilliantly. “It’s like Dead Poets Society. Terrible film. But a great ­ending. So that’s what you take away. And you forget that everything that went before was awful.” If you really liked Dead Poets Society, you can insert the name of ­another film here. But the analogy still holds. Boris Johnson must be hoping so. Let’s see come autumn.

[see also: Kirsty Wark’s Diary: A vaccine boost, Zoom cocktails, and why Scotland’s fate rests on the Salmond inquiry]

This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus