At 5.02pm, the Prime Minister started to address the nation. At 5.04pm, Twitter exploded. Even the official Civil Service account went rogue, as if all the Sir Humphreys had finally had enough.
I don’t have any good words for this, and words are my business. I spent yesterday trying so hard to be sensible and reasonable. (I always wonder why this is such demanding work. Why is it easier to be unreasonable? My lesser self, who is now called Mabel, is always trying to escape her bonds and shout and swear and poke people with metaphorical sticks. It’s sometimes a tough gig to get her back in her box.)
That acknowledgement that I wrote of yesterday, that sense of counting for something, that desire to be heard – that did not come. Not even close. There was a party line that had clearly been agreed upon, and it felt wounding and cynical. It felt, in the moment, like a betrayal. Even staunch old Tories were shaking their heads and muttering about loss of trust.
I felt sad and angry and baffled. Reading my Twitter feed, I saw that I was not alone. This should have made me feel better, but it didn’t. It was like being in an echo chamber of despair.
In the end, I stepped away from the machine and went to do the horses. They were having a little adventure in the woods and came cantering when I called. They looked so strong and bright and bonny. I thought: how lucky they are that they don’t read English and don’t have the internet and find all the delight they need in the spring grass. Then I rang my stepfather. He doesn’t have the internet either. (Or at least, he sort of does, but he doesn’t go on it.) ‘Who is this Dominic Cummings?’ he said. ‘What is this Twitter?’ He is almost ninety and remembers the war. I felt a sudden passionate relief that there was someone out there for whom this entire sage is meaningless. ‘I suppose I should get a bit more with it,’ he said.
I laughed and laughed. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Please don’t. I can’t tell you how much you have cheered me up.’
It’s really supposed to be my job to cheer him up. He’s the one confined to barracks, after all. I can go out in the fields and see the sky. But today, he made me feel better, just by being his unaffected self.
I love examining things. I like reasons for things. I always think that if I can dig away to the foundations and find out what is truly going on, then everything will be all right. But I don’t have the heart for digging into this one. I don’t know why I feel quite so sad. I’m sure it’s a complex combination of factors, layer on layer of nuance. I think a lot of it comes from a bone-deep exhaustion. These have been long weeks, and there are many more of them to come before the world steadies on its axis.
I keep thinking that I probably should not expect more from my Prime Minister. I may not remember the war, but I do have vivid childhood snapshots of my parents drinking and swearing their way through the three-day week, when Mr Heath did not seem to know which way was up, and I recall Mrs Thatcher and the miners as if it were yesterday. I remember the AIDS crisis and the horror show of Clause 28, which changed the way I thought of politics for a long time. I remember the war in Iraq, and the loss of faith that inspired. (I had absolutely fallen, hook, line and sinker, for the whole things can only get better vibe.) So it’s not as if I haven’t been round the block.
But this feels bigger than all those crises, and I suppose the insistent Pollyanna in me thought we might get something greater – a rising to the occasion, or a flash of heart, or just something.
Expectation management, I tell myself sternly. That’s what I shall go away and work on. And gratitude for the things which are good and true. And more appreciation than ever for the people who are honourable, and honest, and brave. Because there really are a lot of those – in the hospitals, and in the care homes, and in every street of this dear old country. There are all the good people who don’t make the headlines and aren’t on the news and who will never trend on Twitter, but who live generously and well, making the world a slightly better place, in a hundred unsung ways. Those are the people I believe in.
There’s a beautiful passage in Middlemarch, which goes –
‘But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’
I’ve loved that since I first read it at the age of fourteen. I think of it often. I think of it now.