After spending much of an enjoyable Sunday reading long, well-sourced accounts of what actually happened inside No 10 last week, I am still none too clear about the denouement. Some stories ended with Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain being given their marching orders by Boris Johnson, who told them to get out and not come back. Others had Cummings and Cain leaving on good terms with the prime minister after a jokey last cup of tea together and promising to reform the band for the next election. Even when – I doubt it’s a question of if – any of the three protagonists write their own accounts, I doubt we will be much more the wiser. But Johnson does appear to be using the departure of Cummings and Cain to reset his style of government from a more macho, abrasive culture, so it was little surprise to find on Monday that a minister had been allowed on Good Morning Britain to be interviewed by Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid after a programme boycott of 201 days. And inevitably it was Matt Hancock – the more he tries to get his colleagues to like him, the more they treat him with no respect – who drew the short straw. What followed was 20 minutes of unmissable TV from which the health secretary is probably suffering PTSD. After Hancock said he was there to answer questions, Morgan gently pointed out that he hadn’t answered the first one he had been asked over whether he had supported the boycott. At which point, he tried to claim there had been no coordinated plan to avoid GMB and that the reason he hadn’t appeared in months was just a diary clash. From there it was all downhill, with Morgan and Reid reading out a charge sheet of government failure and the health secretary just smiling and nodding, while saying as little as possible. “It’s been lovely to be on,” Hancock concluded. It hadn’t looked that way.
In previous years, my wife and I have binge-watched The Crown as soon as it came out – sometimes even watching three or four episodes per night. This year we are trying to ration ourselves. It’s going to be a long winter and we want to spin out the best series for as long as possible, given that we don’t do much else in the evenings other than watch TV. So far we are up to episode three and loving it. I can’t quite see why so many people are upset there are bits that are factually incorrect as it was only ever claiming to be a drama and not a documentary. I am sure there were as many inaccuracies in the earlier series – not that I would know as I’m hardly an expert on the royals – but no one seemed to make too much fuss back then. I guess the closer The Crown gets to the present day, the more people there are around who will have their own experiences and memories of the events. I’m mainly just enjoying it because the scripts are first class – it was a nice touch to have a side-plot of the wounded stag, which ended as a head on a Balmoral wall, as a metaphor for the hunting down of Diana by the royal family as a suitable trophy wife for Charles – and because the acting is superb. Olivia Colman is far less one-dimensional than she was in series three and Emma Corrin captures the vulnerability and neglect of Diana perfectly. Well, up to the wedding at any rate, which is as far as we’ve got. The only performance that slightly grates is Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. Normally I love almost everything Anderson does, but this time she seems to be just too much of a caricature. The voice and the mannerisms just feel too exaggerated and unnatural. But then as I never knew Thatcher either, other than through what I saw of her on the news, maybe Anderson has nailed her.
Almost all of the things I have ever bought that have increased in value have been acquired either because I needed or wanted them. I find myself living in a house that I now couldn’t afford, simply because when we bought it 26 years ago house prices were low and the area in which we lived wasn’t considered particularly desirable. I also find myself with a dog that is five times more valuable than when we got him nine years ago, as puppy prices have rocketed through lockdown. Yet when it comes to purpose-bought investments – I’m thinking of my pension in particular – I seem to have the anti-Midas touch as none have made enough to do the job for which they were intended. And I now find myself in the position of having missed out yet again on an opportunity to make myself financially secure for life. When questioned by Keir Starmer at prime minister’s questions about the billions of pounds in contracts that have been awarded to Tory donors and friends of Conservative MPs for PPE – some of it unusable – Boris Johnson was utterly unrepentant. The country should have been thanking the Tories for coming to the rescue in its hour of need and it was disappointing that no Labour MPs had been equally patriotic. If only I had done the same, too. During the first lockdown, the university where my son worked as a lab technician got him and others like him to make plastic face masks in the workshops while the students were away. Rather than allow the university to negotiate the contract with the Department of Health and Social Care, I should – as others have done – have stepped in as the middle-man to double the price and taken 50% of the extra profit as a fee.
My expectations for Christmas diminish by the day. I had already given up long ago on any hope of our daughter and her husband making it over from the US in December, and I am now wondering if it will be possible to see much of other members of my family as well. Though I think I am covered for my mum, as the brilliant care home where she lives is in the process of converting one room into a visiting area, divided by a Perspex sheet. We will be able to look but not touch. The thing is, that much as I would be devastated not to have our son and his girlfriend to stay and the idea of my wife and I working our way through a turkey and mince pies on our own appals me, I can’t see the point of having a five-day amnesty of all the rules over the Christmas period only for it to be then followed by a 25-day punitive lockdown to enable the NHS to cope with all the extra coronavirus infections caused by the respite. So I rather expect much of Christmas to be spent on Zoom, along with long drives to go for walks with relatives. My wife, along with our friend Debby, is more upbeat about the situation and they are both determined that Christmas should not slip by entirely uncelebrated. So they are both working on plans to go full bling and turn the front of our houses into a massive flashing light show of snowmen and Father Christmas with his sleigh. God knows what the electricity bill is going to be. Or who is going to put the lights up. My suggestion that we had a giant green coronavirus, complete with its little suckers, was not well received.
Marcus Rashford becomes more of a legend by the day. Having already secured free school meals throughout the holidays until at least March next year – don’t bet against a further extension – he has now spoken of his newfound enjoyment in reading books and has started a book club for kids who might miss out on the pleasure of reading. Books were certainly part of what kept me more or less sane as a child, because I didn’t have many friends and reading was an escape into a world that seemed both more exciting than my own, yet also somehow safer. Like many kids in the 1960s I started off with Enid Blyton – I could easily knock off one of her books in an afternoon – before moving on to Biggles and Sherlock Holmes. My reading tastes were never that highbrow – I tended to regard Charles Dickens, George Orwell and Jane Austen as the sort of books that had been written to be read at school – and mostly I read thrillers or nonfiction. My bookshelves were full of Alistair Maclean, Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes, John le Carré, Craig Thomas, Jack Higgins and writers like them. Including Len Deighton, who – like Le Carré – was a master of the cold war spy genre and his trilogy of Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match are still three of my favourite reads. Like many thriller writers, he did slightly lose his way once the Berlin Wall came down but his books were still always worth reading. And now I’m delighted to discover that his backlist has been included in the Penguin Modern Classics. So it turns out that all those years ago I was reading classic books all along. It was just that neither I nor anyone else knew it.
Digested week, digested: ‘The Integrated Review: To Infinity and Beyond!’