I have never enjoyed washing up so much. I was riveted. I was transfixed. I was not transfixed by the soapy suds sliding off the plates, though I’m sure a poet, or a fan of mindfulness, might be. I was transfixed by the voice, and words, of one of my favourite people in the world. I was transfixed, in fact, by the calm, melodious voice of Barack Obama.
Politics, society, culture and life
When Christina left The Independent, everyone said she should write a blog. At first, she wrote, sporadically, about whatever popped into her head. Her blog On the death of journalism – and my Indy career, for example, went viral, and ended up in Index on Censorship and mentioned on the front page of Press Gazette. But Brexit has now taken over the country formerly known as the United Kingdom. It also appears to have taken over her blog.
On Tuesday night, the President of the United States said that most journalists are liars. We are, he said, “sick people”. We are “crooked”. We are “bad”.
“The country,” said Theresa May on the steps of Downing Street last week, “is coming together, but Westminster is not.” She was saying that this was the reason she had decided to have an election. She said it with such authority that you would almost think she hadn’t got it the wrong way round.
So it has happened. The thing that seemed impossible – that seemed, in fact, like a drunken dare that had got horribly out of hand – really has happened. The most powerful person in the world will soon be a man supported by the Klu Klux Plan.
On Saturday I went to Chartwell. I saw the desk, and books, and clothes, and letters of the greatest leader of the twentieth century. I saw the uniforms, and robes, and velvet onesie of a big, big man who led our country through the biggest war in history, and who won that war and showed us that Britain was great. If that man had seen what had happened to our country in the past ten days, I think he would have hung his giant head in shame.
The weather forecast wasn’t good, but the weather forecast was wrong. Today it’s the 1st of May and London has been bathed in sunshine. I had planned to spend the best part of it catching up with emails and doing some of the other things that sometimes make modern life feel as if you’re trying to scramble your way up an escalator that’s programmed never to stop. But when I looked up from my laptop, I kept catching glimpses of a blue, blue sky and in the end, that blue sky forced me out.
“Angela Merkel,” said Bill Bryson, “is my hero.” We were sitting by a lake, in a quiet part of Surrey, talking about his new book, The Road to Little Dribbling. It was only a year since he had completed his own British citizenship test, after living in the “small island” that made him his fortune for nearly 40 years. Angela Merkel had just announced that all Syrians would be “welcome” in her country. “Germany is a strong country,” she said, “we will manage”.
You can see it in his face. You can see the horror and bewilderment written all over Jeremy Corbyn’s face. One minute he was happily spouting the scripts he has spouted, in draughty halls, for 32 years, about capitalism being bad and about why every international problem was really Britain’s fault. The next minute he was being asked if he would press the nuclear button. It’s like that dream where you’re suddenly at Wimbledon, facing Novak Djokovic and knowing that you literally will not be able to return a single shot.
So, it’s over. After six weeks that have felt much more like six months, this general election is over. And for many people, it really is over. For my dear friend, Stephen Lloyd, for example, the utterly dedicated MP for Eastbourne and Willingdon, it’s very clearly over now. When I woke up, at 5am, he had just announced that he was retiring from politics, after losing his seat by a margin of 733 votes. I know how hard he worked. I know how much his constituents loved him. But his political career is now over. Politics is a tough, tough, tough, tough game.
“It is,” said the speaker, “a very difficult task to run a country in a different way to the opposition”. The speaker was the historian Donald Sassoon and he was speaking at a conference on “Is there a future for the left in Europe?”. The conference, organised by a think tank called the Danube Institute and David Goodhart from Demos, took place in Budapest last month.
“Why,” said someone on Twitter last week, “are all the people best able to run the country cutting hair, driving taxis or writing columns in newspapers?”. As it happens, I think my hairdresser might do a better job than most. She would certainly do a better job than Ed Miliband, who made more of a mess of his conference speech than any politician I can remember.
If you’re going to wreck someone else’s dreams, you’d better have a pretty good excuse. Sometimes, it can’t be helped. Sometimes, eggs have to be broken to make delicious meringues, even if one of those eggs turns out to be your brother. You have to break those eggs, because, although you’ve never actually made a meringue, you know you’ve got it in you to make the most delicious meringue in the world.
When the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, I actually leapt to their defence. Sure, there were some snouts in troughs. Sure, all that stuff about duck houses seemed – but turned out not to be – beyond parody. Did MPs really need to claim for bath plugs? Couldn’t they buy a packet of biscuits and not claim it back? But when the reports went on and on and on and on, I decided to speak – on Sky News and in a column – in their defence.
“The word ethics,” said Ann Gallagher, “stems from the Greek ethikos, which originally meant ‘custom’ or ‘habit’.” She was speaking at the launch of a new project at the University of Surrey, which has the (literally) cool name, or rather acronym, ICE. ICE, she explained, stands for the “International Care Ethics Observatory” and the best way of illustrating it was with an iceberg. That, she explained, was because the big, important stuff was what you didn’t necessarily see.
It started with an iPad. I stood up to let a woman off the bus, placed the iPad on the seat next to me as I gathered up my bags and watched as it slithered off the edge and on to the floor. My first thought when I picked it up was that the pattern of broken glass was strangely beautiful. It looked, I thought, like the branches of a tree, or perhaps a fountain. My second thought was that I might as well have just taken eight fifty-pound notes and set them alight.
Simon Stevens, the new chief of the NHS, won’t be short of free advice. He should, say people on the left, halt the rush to competition. He should, say people on the right, speed it up to weed out the losers. He should clamp down. He should toughen up. He should do everything he can to hold his 1.7m employees to account. He should, perhaps, run it like an army.
I want to write about Seamus Heaney, but first I want to write about Nora Ephron. It’s just over a year since Nora Ephron died. It is, in fact, a year and two months since Nora Ephron died. When she died, I was asked to write about her (for The Independent) and to talk about her (for Night Waves on Radio 3). I was happy to do this, since I loved her work.
I’m on holiday. I didn’t mean to be, but I am. I did mean to be here, in this tiny village, on a mountain in Spain. I did mean to be sitting on this hillside, gazing out at olive groves, and pine trees and a blue, blue sky. But what I meant to be doing was write. I was meant, now that I’m freelance, to be doing the kind of writing that means you can actually eat some food and pay some bills. I was meant, in fact, to be writing a little e-book.
“We are immensely grateful,” said the man from the Foreign Office, “for letting us host this event here.” When you looked round the room, you could see why. There were young black men and women, in suits and smart dresses, young brown men and women, in suits and long robes, and young white men and women in suits and summer frocks.
On Thursday night, Lenny Henry made me cry. I don’t know if he meant to, but he did. He used to try to make people laugh, but he wasn’t always good at it. It’s hard to make people laugh. You have to feel that the person who’s trying to do it isn’t trying too hard. I don’t know if Lenny Henry was trying, on Thursday night, to make a theatre full of people cry.
Last week, I had an email from a reader. When I say a reader, I mean a reader, or perhaps I should say a former reader, of The Independent. He’s one of a number of readers who have been emailing me for years.