Quite what possessed Boris Johnson to push aside the business secretary, Alok Sharma, at the last minute and open the debate on the government’s internal market bill is beyond me. Sharma had seemed the perfect choice – a man so dull he can put himself to sleep mid-sentence – and it wasn’t as if Johnson had anything to gain by speaking, given that he had already alienated many MPs in his own party by promising to break international law. Still, it did make for brilliant theatre watching him being totally eviscerated by Ed Miliband, who was himself standing in for a self-isolating Keir Starmer. There were so many highlights of Miliband’s speech, though my own favourite was when he realised that Johnson didn’t even understand the details of his own bill and offered to give way to let him try and explain. Boris remained firmly seated. Miliband’s speech was one of the very best I have heard in all the years I have been sketching parliament, and I couldn’t help thinking if he had spoken with that much passion and command of detail – instead of coming up with embarrassing stunts, such as the ill-fated Ed Stone – when he was leader of the Labour party, how different British politics might have been over the past five years. David Cameron might not have got the outright majority that not even his closest aides thought he would win at the 2015 election, the referendum might never have happened and we might never have ended up with a man so patently unsuited to high office as Boris is for No 10. Miliband’s speech had echoes of one of those sliding doors moments and I could feel myself falling into a rabbit warren of “what ifs?”. The older I get, though, the more I think history is often determined more by a series of accidents and cock-ups than the brilliant decisions of great men and women.
A new report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists has found that problem drinking has more than doubled since the beginning of lockdown, with more than 8.4 million people now drinking at a level that presents a serious risk to their health. The college has also found significant increases in drug-taking and has warned that the government needs to invest far more in addiction services that are already completely overstretched. I have not drunk alcohol or taken drugs for more than 33 years but I find this all too believable. In normal times, I still get dreams where I have been using drugs about twice a year, but with the lack of social connection and stress of lockdown, those dreams now recur about twice a month. Each time I wake up, I feel profoundly unsettled, momentarily unsure of whether I have relapsed or not. But much as the college is right to demand more money for frontline services to help addicts and alcoholics, no one should forget that there is help available that costs precisely nothing in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. I first got clean by going into a rehab clinic, but it was going to an NA meeting while I was there that gave me a glimmer of hope that I might be able to stay clean once I got out. I remember my first meeting as if it was yesterday. I sat at the back of a crowded room, saying nothing, as I listened to recovering addicts talking about experiences and feelings that were similar to mine. I had no idea such people even existed. The only addicts I had ever known were either still using or dead. A year later, I was still attending the meetings, and as I was given my one-year key ring the secretary said he could clearly recall the first time I went and had been certain he would never see me again. Miracles do happen and they don’t always cost money. Obviously there are no live meetings now, but there are countless available on Zoom at all times of the day. If you think you have a problem, then give it a go. You’ve nothing to lose and you just might turn your life around.
Like many hypochondriacs, I find myself to be something of a paradox. I can obsess about symptoms that are almost certainly minor and be in denial about ones that are potentially serious. My recent prostate scare being a case in point, as I had had clearly identifiable symptoms for a couple of years. But it won’t surprise you to learn that I have since upped my game: I had my flu jab last Friday on the first day stocks came into my local chemist and I conscientiously log my coronavirus symptoms – or lack of them – via the King’s College London Zoe tracker app on my phone. So far it has not recommended that I get a test based on the data I supplied, which is probably just as well as the government’s testing programme seems to be in meltdown. Only today Boris Johnson told the liaison committee that he had no recollection of “Operation Moonshot”, the government’s £100bn plan to reach a target of 10m daily tests, that he had announced just a week earlier. There again, it will be a miracle if the government reaches its other target of 500,000 tests by the end of next month. And even if it does, it won’t be enough because, as Greg Clark pointed out, roughly 500,000 people report symptoms compatible with Covid on a daily basis at this time of year in a normal year. Understandably, MPs from both sides of the house are furious with Matt Hancock, as the government has had all summer to prepare and their inboxes are full of messages from constituents who either can’t get a test or are recommended to travel a round trip of about 700 miles to get one. Only today I got an email from a friend in the West Country whose grandson was sent home from school with a cough. He was booked in for a test in Antrim. In the end she drove to Taunton where there is a huge test site with more than 50 staff where no one was being tested. Initially the boy was turned down as he didn’t have the right bar code but after much pleading he was eventually given a swab testing kit. Whether they ever get the results is another matter.
Back in my early 30s, I entertained Hemingway-like fantasies of going deep sea fishing. Indeed when my wife and I were on holiday in the US – pre-kids – I booked myself on to a day’s fishing trip and turned up at the jetty ready to do battle with some serious fish. Only to find – much to my wife’s enjoyment – that everyone else booked on the trip were parents with young kids. The boat was only going several miles out of harbour to catch some small sea bass; my shame was completed by the fact that I was one of the only people onboard to catch nothing. That experience rather did for my fishing dreams. But two years ago, I started watching Gone Fishing with Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer and can think of few things I would like more than to spend a day out on the river bank with the pair of them. Not least because my inability to catch anything would be seen as a positive asset, as the fishing is merely the backdrop to a friendship. Paul is the serious fisherman but Bob looks as if he doesn’t really care if he catches nothing so long as he gets to hang out with his old friend. Gone Fishing is now in its third series and is one of those rare programmes that seems to get better and better the longer it goes on. It started out as some kind of therapy between two comedians who had both undergone major heart surgery but, though that health-scare bond still underpins much of their interactions, the programme has become progressively more tender, funny, wise and life-affirming. Last week’s outing in search of trout on the River Test reduced me to tears. Along with This Farming Life, Gone Fishing is the perfect antidote to these stressful times.
I have now watched all nine episodes of the Amazon All or Nothing documentary on Spurs and my opinion of it as some kind of Disneyfied PR exercise for the club has only hardened. In the earlier episodes, all the hype was about the importance of finishing in a Champions League spot but by the end the narrative had switched to the miracle of qualifying for the Europa League. It also concluded with everyone agreeing that “the year had been very difficult” but that José Mourinho had got the club into a position where he could now build for the future. Though on the basis of Spurs’ opening game of the season against Everton, many would conclude we had contrived to go even further backwards. After the game, Mourinho said he “didn’t like his team”. Me neither, but then I haven’t been coaching it for the best part of a year. But all this could change if rumours of Gareth Bale coming back to Tottenham on loan from Real Madrid prove correct. I’ve been watching Spurs for well over 50 years now and Bale has been by far the best footballer it’s been my privilege to watch. And I’m including Jimmy Greaves, Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne. I was there in Milan when he scored his second-half hat-trick, and hid from the ambulance after a bad car accident – I wasn’t driving – so that I could get to West Ham with blood dripping out of a cut above my eye only to see with the other eye Bale score a last minute winning wondergoal. Bale had it all. He could run fast, he could shoot with either foot, he could head the ball, he could tackle and he never stopped trying. Not something you can say about many players. Nor did I begrudge him his move to Real Madrid. He had already stayed longer than he needed to have done to prove his loyalty and it was clear he was too good for us to keep. To have him back, seven years later, to play alongside Harry Kane could make the season an unexpected joy.