I write these words a week before publication, so I prefer to concentrate on the timeless verities: my indigence, impecuniousness and, lately, the weird skin disease affecting my hands, which shows no signs of abating. (The skin is now so sensitive that I even have to eat popcorn with a spoon – I am very fond of making popcorn, and you haven’t lived until you’ve made it in a pan with a glass lid. You have to be very careful when you scoop because there is a very real danger of spooning up unpopped kernels and destroying a molar.) But every so often a news story comes along which is so compelling that, even though this column is meant to be a diversion from the political stuff that has preceded it, I have no choice but to write about it. And this week I feel compelled to write about Dominic Cummings.
The thing is, I have always been fascinated by him. This weird, Gollum-like creature (although if we want a Lord of the Rings character to compare him to, then surely he is Théoden’s dastardly adviser, Wormtongue), sitting improbably and unaccountably at the centre of power, with his calls for misfits and oddballs, his word-salads of logorrhoeac blogposts (sample headings: “High Performance Government”, “Unrecognised Simplicities of Effective Action”, etc and ad nauseam), has been an unwanted, unelected feature of our government for more years than it is healthy to think about. The giddy highlight, of course, was his epic, toilet-break-free drive to Durham – or it was until his surreal, mind-boggling claim that he drove to Barnard Castle and back to test his eyesight.
If this government and its lackeys have learned anything from Russia over the past few years, it is the concept of vranyo, a word that is hard to translate simply, but means, more or less, telling barefaced lies and knowing full well that the person or people you’re lying to also know they are lies. (“Russians can’t stop themselves,” says a character in Derek Robinson’s excellent novel, A Splendid Little War. “There’s a word for that kind of lying. We call it vranyo. It satisfies some inner need.” Cf. the whole Russian poisoning suspects/Salisbury Cathedral thing.) And then there was the Princess Nut Nuts debacle, which ended – or so we thought – with Cummings making his exit, with a theatrical flourish, from the front door of No 10, carrying a cardboard box full of, everyone suspected, nothing much.
As you know now, the nation is going through a profound re-evaluation of Cummings and his public works. My sympathies for Princess Nut Nuts – anyone who can get Cummings fired has to have something going for them – have been somewhat eroded of late. I know she never said “John Lewis nightmare” but the rest of the designergate story isn’t really a good look.
And now Cummings has had enough. It looks as though there was something in that box after all, and he is throwing it out and it’s sticking to the wall. This is fantastic playground stuff, and what a nation needs. It does the soul good to see enormous front-page headlines in the Daily Mail denouncing our ridiculous, mendacious and villainous Prime Minister; it takes a grateful populace’s minds off all the other ghastly things that are happening to this country.
But there is one aspect of the whole story that people are overlooking, and this is the Durham connection. For reasons we need not go into right now, I actually know rather more about Durham and its environs than most southerners, and one of the things I know about it is that it is populated by some of the most eccentric characters in the country. The first time I went up there I was arrested by the sight, at about three in the afternoon, of a man, among friends, using what looked very much like a cordless mini sander on his tongue. Subsequent visits have proved no less rewarding.
And so when my contact up there sends me an archive photo of Dom wearing, starting from the top, a straw hat, an extremely undisciplined white short-sleeved linen shirt, tracksuit bottoms and – a wonderful touch, this – electric blue trainers, and rounding off the whole ensemble by carrying a stick, it all begins to fall into place. People from Durham, she explained, do not give a tinker’s curse for conventionality, or what you think. I think this does explain a lot.
I do not know how this will all play out. I really do hope that by the time you read this, something even more amazing will have happened. I have never been Cummings’s greatest fan. But now, I hope we can agree that he adds greatly to the gaiety of the nation.
This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?