A while ago, I instituted an internet rule. If someone in public life annoyed the hell out of me, I would not mention them by name. If I had to write about the annoyance, in order for my brain not to explode, I would say ‘a political operative’ or ‘a famous television person’. This has a faint whiff of the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dam, but it made me feel happy. I think it’s easy to forget that well-known humans are people too, underneath all the trappings of celebrity. They have mothers and brothers and friends and cousins. They have feelings, which can be lacerated.
More recently, and even more so in this dark time, I decided that I would try to fill the online world with beauty. I would not get into the political rows and the ad hominem attacks and the take-downs. My plan was to post soothing pictures of Scotland and lurchers and thoroughbreds, and only retweet the bright and the beautiful. (This was easy because, as I wrote yesterday, my Twitter is an enchanted glade in the haunted forest of social media.)
Occasionally, because I’m not quite as nice as I like to think I am, I would bust out. Something would make me so angry that I broke the beauty rule. I smashed the kindness policy. I think I may even have mentioned names. It wasn’t the catharsis one might have imagined. I felt a little bit grubby afterwards, a little bit cheap and shoddy. I reminded myself that the best place to process strong emotion is in the privacy of one’s own room.
But then the awkward questions would come. Am I just doing this because I don’t want to stir up trouble? There are wrongs that need to be righted and disgraces that need to be illuminated. Braver people than I are out there, suiting up. I’m just saying, ‘Here’s a ravishing red mare. And please be lovely to me.’ (I have absolutely no capacity for conflict. Even a sharp tone, on a vulnerable day, can leave me feeling shaken.)
I started to wonder whether I was not only copping out, but also showboating. Look at me! Being decent!
Anyway, into all this came the saga of Dominic Cummings. The moment I read that story, I leapt to the moral high ground and planted my flag. I go days without seeing a living soul – our lockdown in Scotland is still in its strictest phase – and he’s driving about the country, breaking the rules he helped to put into place. The story seemed to contain all my favourite loathings – a sense of entitlement, a blatant hypocrisy, an apparent conviction of being above the little people. I found an article about all this and posted it and I was so livid that I fell to cussing. The piece quoted an unnamed government source saying ‘there is zero chance he is going to resign.’ I wrote, in my incandescent fury, ‘I feel like the government gives zero fucks about ordinary people like me.’ The more I read about all the other ordinary people who had also obeyed the rules, the more I felt that we were being regarded as fools. We were the saps who had to be told what to do, whilst the people in power could swan about doing whatever the hell they wanted.
For once, I felt fairly happy with my choice. I hadn’t called anyone names, but I had said how I felt. This is how it does feel, even now, as I have grown calm and am contemplating the situation without heat. In a time of dislocation and uncertainty, you want to feel that the people who make the decisions are on your side. You want to feel counted. You want to feel protected. I did not feel like that. I do not feel like that. Maybe it’s too much to ask, from a bunch of human beings who certainly have all the same flaws that I do. (Maybe, says my better self, I am being demanding and entitled. And maybe I am being hypocritical myself, since I do stupid things all the time, and have brought the making of mistakes to a high art.)
Then the communal outcry started to roll. It was big, and it kept getting bigger. It was as if this one incident released all the fear and frustration that has been building over the last sixty days. One man behaving badly – and maybe I should not judge, but I think it was not wonderful behaviour – was blown up into a morality tale for our times. But, said a small, uncertain voice in my head, that is still a human being. Is this too much? Should a person be allowed to make a mistake, without being crushed?
And this is what I can’t work out – what is too much and what isn’t. I hear the voice of Martin Sheen, tense with vexation, from one of the great scenes in The West Wing: ‘Can someone please explain to me what a proportionate response is?’ Where is the line, between principle and humanity? How much empathy does a person forfeit, when they put their hands on the levers of power? And how much do we, the public, have to watch our category errors? I mean that someone can do something careless, and stupid, and wrong, without necessarily being careless and stupid and wrong. (Also, here are two very different categories – holding to account, and character assassination.)
I think Cummings doesn’t help himself. His pose is that he does not give a damn. He’s been filmed doing that today. I say pose, because I can’t believe that anyone can care so little when they are in the eye of a public storm. But if you decide that your defence mechanism is to display no empathy, you are not going to invite any. The tweets that broke my heart today are from all the people who wrote that they could not go to see their dying mother because they were obeying the rules, or who had not set eyes on their newly born grandchild, or who spent all day worrying about their ninety-seven-year-old father. There were all the people who could not go to the funerals of their best beloveds, the ones who had missed birthdays and anniversaries and a whole slew of family celebrations. There was a world of heartbreak out there, from people who were doing the right thing.
One woman wrote that she lived alone, and she had not had a human being in her house for these dragging weeks of lockdown. I felt as if I were looking in a mirror. That’s me, I thought. It’s a long time to have an empty room. I thought of my stepfather, who is eighty-eight and confined to his tiny house in the south, with only his memories of my mum for company. I talk to him via video, but you all know that this is not enough.
I think that human beings will do almost anything if they just get a little acknowledgement. What happened today felt as if all the sacrifices had gone for nothing, were being ignored or taken for granted or even sneered at. (I know this is almost certainly not the case, at least not consciously or deliberately, but that’s how it felt.) And then there was no remorse, no ‘I’m so desperately sorry’, no ‘If I had my time again I would make a different decision.’ There was no, ‘I know what you are all going through’. Not from anyone. The party line was wheeled out, and the barricades were snapped shut. Would it be so very hard to apologise, or to admit flawed judgement, or even to make a heartfelt nod of the head to public sentiment?
I think of the Queen. I am at that age when I think a lot about the Queen. As I get older, I have more and more admiration for restraint and dignity and consistency. They are not very glamorous virtues, but they are reassuring ones. When she talks to the nation, she talks about the nation, about the British people, about the griefs and hopes and resiliences. She’s only on for a few minutes but, in that fleeting time, she somehow manages to convey that acknowledgment that the human spirit craves. (And I know she knows, because she gets thousands of letters from ordinary Britons. Apparently, her postbag increases vastly in times of crisis.) The rather wonderful irony is that she is the most old-fashioned person in the country, and she is removed from the everyday things of life like paying bills and getting the boiler fixed, and she is as far away from touchy-feely as you get, yet she, in her quiet way, does pitch-perfect empathy with elegance and grace. It feels like she gets it, in a way that the politicos, with their focus groups and their polling and their numbers, don’t.
Perhaps that’s what it is. It’s the getting it. I sometimes think that everyone has a pressing need to be got. I think of that spreading feeling of gratitude and relief when someone laughs at your jokes, or teases you about your idiosyncrasies, or nods their head and says, ‘Yes, yes, I understand.’ I think of the yearning desire to know that one is not alone. I think of how lovely it is to be seen, to be heard, to be known. Perhaps, today, that collective cry of outrage erupted because so many of us Britons felt as if we were invisible.
I don’t know the answers to any of this. It’s not the kind of thing I usually write about. I am shy of wading into popular controversies, and I am so keenly aware of my own shortcomings that I don’t much enjoy throwing stones from my glass house. Part of me thinks: actions have consequences. Part of me wonders about the disproportionate response. (Or even whether it was disproportionate. There are so many things I can’t work out.) But what struck me today was how authentic so many people were. Of course there were those who were loving the pile-on. There were those who, like me with my initial reaction, were having a fine old time on the moral high ground. But a huge majority of the responses I saw were from people who told stories of their own losses, their own griefs, their own scarring experiences. They weren’t going on the attack; they were telling their truths. They were saying, ‘Here we are. We exist. We are trying our best. Can we be heard?’