12 May

Fan fiction is a fine thing. But I have met some people whose first reaction to a book or a film or a TV show is to rewrite it in their head. People for whom “twisting round the story so it means something different” is the primary way of consuming a text.

Don’t get me wrong. It is tremendous fun to write a story in which Irene Adler was Moriarty in disguise; where the Starship Enterprise is a mental asylum for officers too crazy to function in the actual fleet or where Batman is a capitalist oppressor and the Joker is a radical left wing anarchist. But not, I think, before you have read Sherlock Holmes and watched Star Trek on their own terms.

We exegetes are guilty of the same kind of thing. We can barely look at — for example — a funny children’s cartoon loosely based on a movie we like when we were kids without starting to pull it apart, turn it round on itself, try to explain how it works structurally. Texts only exist so we can say clever things about them.

C.S Lewis said that he was once berated by a student who thought that he was not treating Chaucer with respect. Lewis’s offence was that he had suggested in a lecture that the Miller’s Tale was a funny poem. I suspect the student had been taught the Great Man theory of literature. Chaucer was a Great Man and therefore wouldn’t have found toilet jokes funny; therefore if you find something in his poetry which looks like a toilet joke, you can’t have understood it properly.

Between 2015 and 2019 I was a fully signed up believer in the Corbyn Delusion. We don’t need to go into the rights and wrongs of the great lost cause here: I have long ago recanted and fully accept that if I had done so earlier we would be in very slightly less of a mess than we are at the moment. Depending on whether you think Owen Smith could have beaten Theresa May in 2017 and how much good you think he could have done in the last three years. But during those four years I did become rather sensitive about how it feels to have a press which monsters Your Guy on general principles irrespective of what he says or does. My Guy certainly made a lot of missteps, particularly on the simple party management front. But where I saw an “unreconstructed pre-Kinnock Labour-man with some probably over-ambitious notions” everyone else seemed to see “a Farage supporting Jew obsessed Leninist with a Stalinist hat and a Maoist bicycle.” And I made a mental note not to do this. Some politicians, like some journalists and some bloggers, are undoubtedly scoundrels. (*) But few of them went into the business in order to be scoundrels, and most of them are not equally scoundrelish at all times. No life, however mean was lived in vain, and Judas was a tolerable chap.


I thought Mr Johnson gave a really very good speech on Sunday night. He was clearly speaking in his own voice — or at any rate in the stage persona he has cultivated for the last decade. Nothing is more dispiriting than watching a Kinnock or a Foot or even some would argue an Obama being forced into a smart suit and worked over by P.R men until the very thing which made us like them is obscured and we are left with a cookie cutter politician reading out a script. On the other hand the buffoonish silliness was largely gone. He had brushed his hair. He used the Boris character to put across what was basically bad news forcefully and compellingly.

It would be madness to allow a second spike. A consensus on what we could do: and I stress could. It is a conditional plan. Step 2 will happen in June at the earliest. Step 3 in July at the earliest.

As a great man once said: I would rather be a cynical monarchist than a whole-hearted republican. But I can’t regard the Queen as anything other than a pantomime character: over sixty years She has perfected the art of making speeches which say literally nothing at all. I would like to have come over feeling all patriotic and loyal when She spoke to the nation on the V.E day anniversary, but it was all I could do to suppress a smirk. (The rhythm of Her speech seems expressly designed to put the listener to sleep.) Johnson’s performance made me feel as if I was a citizen listening to the Prime Minister talking to the nation in a time of national emergency.

I didn’t vote for him and one of the reasons I left the Labour Party is that if there is ever another election I want to be free to tactically vote for the person most likely to not be him.

I am the only person currently writing on the internet who is not an expert in viruses and epidemics. But it appeared that the substance of the government’s plan is broadly in the right place. There are fascists and eugenicists who are actively saying, some of them in respectable newspapers, that allowing the weak to die is a good thing in itself; and there are denialists, some of them in charge of major superpowers, who say that the epidemic isn’t really that bad and it will all be over in time for the summer holidays; and there are libertarians who think that the government has got no right telling us what we should and shouldn’t do, even during a plague. But it would be a mistake to carry on doing something just because some of the people who would like you to stop are obvious lunatics. We can’t, in fact, all stay at home for two years and hope it goes away. It might go away in two years, it might not. We might have a cure or a vaccine by November. We might never have one.

Johnsons’ five levels of alert represent an intelligent compromise. If less people have it, and the people who have it are not spreading it, then we can open up some shops and send some kids back to school. If more people have it and the people who have it are still spreading it, then we have to stay at home for a bit longer. Of course “Five Levels Of Alert” is to some extent political spin. Everything is to some extent political spin. You can’t blame politicians for acting politically any more than you can blame academics for acting academically.

Did I mention that I didn’t vote for Johnson and will vote for the “Person Who Isn’t Johnson” candidate at the next election, if there is one?

We have to be very careful of the term Common Sense. Common Sense is often a politically loaded code-word. Believers in the Cultural Marxist conspiracy theory treat Common Sense as the opposite of Political Correctness: indeed they define Political Correctness as “Whatever is contrary to Common Sense.” But it appeared to me that common sense was what Johnson was rightly trying to appeal to. I am in a fortunate position. I am staying with my best friend in a large house. I regard reading books, watching plays, listening to music, and writing pompous essays on the internet as the main business of life — certainly the thing I do on days off. So while I am a bit sad that Sidmouth and Priddy are not happening this year, being told that I have to stay at home for a few weeks is not that much of a hardship to me. My employer is still paying me and they seem to be taking very seriously the problem of how my place of work (a branch library) might safely function when it is allowed to reopen. If you are not being paid, if you are stuck in a small house with children, if you have to go to work in a shop or a factory which has been made insufficiently safe, if the main thing you look forward to in life is sportsing or watching other people sports then you are probably much more unhappy than me. And of course lots of people are sick, and some people are very sick, and a few of the sick people won’t get better. Perhaps you have to be in a position of privilege to say “I approve of the Spirit of the law, even if I have some questions about the Letter.”

I understood what Johnson was saying tolerably well. “If you can work from home, work from home. But if you can’t, go back to work. If you can walk to your place of work, walk there. If you can’t walk there, drive there in your own car. If you can’t walk or drive then catch the bus. But if you catch the bus, try not to get too close to other people.” I don’t find this specially complicated. I don’t think conditional clauses and qualifications represent weakness or equivocation. I think you can be a sincere pro-European while admitting that you would only give the E.U seven marks out of ten.

The idea of only taking one walk a day, and never driving to the park even if there is no park near your house, was never terribly realistic and was widely flouted. I shall let you in on a little secret: it takes me about an hour and a half to do ten thousand steps, and I sometimes have a little break along the way. “You can go out for as long as you want to; you can meet up with people if you want to; but you mustn’t form big groups and you really, really need to stay two meters apart” reflects what sensible people are doing anyway.

There is no point in banning something which no-one wants to do. It is impossible to ban something which everyone will carry on doing anyway. The best law is the one which everyone would be obeying even if it didn’t exist. Did Machiavelli say that?

I didn’t vote for Johnson at the last election; I find it almost impossible to imagine myself being friends with a Conservative (as opposed to a conservative) and am being extremely careful not to call him by his first name. If I was going to Moreton Under Marsh I wouldn’t start from here.

Younger readers will find it hard to believe that I grew up in a world where going to the shops on a Sunday was against the Law. (Television was black and white, Doctor Who was good, there was no fast food except fish and chips and children were always well behaved and obeyed their parents.) Hardly anyone, even the churches, really thought this was a good idea, but hardly anyone, even the atheists, was quite prepared to change the law. Periodically someone would point out that the letter of the law meant that you could buy a copy of Playboy Magazine on the Lord’s Day but not a Bible; and that you could buy a double whisky but not a glass of milk. Then the bigger shops spotted that there was nothing to stop them from opening provided they didn’t actually sell anything, and when everyone accepted that they started selling things even though it weren’t allowed to. In the end the government said that since everyone was disregarding the law they had better repeal it. This is why marijuana is now legal.

Before Johnson had finished speaking the textual analysis kicked in. Like the bad-fan fiction writers, we started looking for ways of reading against the spirit of the text. “So I can be within 2 metres of as many people as I like in the park, as long as I don’t know then, but only 1 person I know: this is why the world is laughing at us” was one fairly representative comment on Twitter.

The main criticism was presentational: “Stay Alert” is a silly slogan. Some of it was exegetical: what does “even unlimited” (as in “more and even unlimited outdoor exercise”) even mean? A little bit of it was mathematical: if the threat level is the rate of infection plus the number of infections then how does 200,000 + 0.75 come out as “4”. Everyone knows that the formula meant “we will take into account both the rate of infection and the number of infections before determining the level of lockdown we need” but that’s no reason not to make fun of the standard of maths teaching at Johnson’s weird posh school. It is quite post-modernist to use what looks like a maths equation to make a non-mathematical point and also very naughty.

I’ve looked at the governments website. The five point guideline seems clear enough. Work from home if you can. See as few people as possible. Stay two meters apart when you are out. Wash your hands. The commentary seems sensible and realistic. We recommend staying two meters apart. You are unlikely to be infected if you just walk past someone. The science is complex. Don’t get too close to people for more than a short period of time as much as you can.

Dominic Raab seems to have got himself in a right old muddle because there is a stipulation that meeting one person in the park (and staying two meters apart) is okay; but meeting three people in the park (even if you stay two meters apart) counts as a gathering and isn’t allowed. So meeting both your parents in the park is against the law. Which a lot of people find understandably silly.

What are the chances of the same Prime Minister having two close allies called Dominic?

It’s a problem. There are perfectly sensible common sense guidelines which everyone understands; but common sense isn’t legally enforceable and you can’t fine people for breaching guidelines. I know from my job that young people like and expect there to be rules: I have discovered that saying “We hope very much that you will take care of our books so other people can enjoy them; but we do understand that accidents can happen and we would never be angry if you accidentally damaged one” creates a sense of panic and a flurry of questions about edge cases. But once you try to turn the principle into a rule and the rule into a law people are going to start finding exceptions and contradictions and absurdities. The reason that you see photographs of an empty looking House of Commons is that most of the MPs spend most of their time in back rooms, trying to find all the places where rules-lawyers might be able to game-play a new piece of legislation. That’s not happening because we’re in an emergency situation. You might think that if there can be a dress rehearsal for the Queen’s funeral there would have been a dress rehearsal for what we would do in the event of a plague, and that it is pretty shocking that we are making it up as we go along.

I agree with you. If I was trying to get to Moreton on the Marsh I wouldn’t start from here. I didn’t vote for this lot last time, I won’t vote for this lot next time, and when this is all over I would like to see Tony Blair indicted for war crimes.


So, prime minister, what you are saying is that if Hitler manages to land an invasion force on top of Ben Nevis, which is a mountain rather than a hill, and certainly not a sea, a beach, a landing ground, or a field, we would not fight him there. That’s a hell of an admission, isn’t it?

So, Mr Leader of the Opposition, even you concede that if Margaret Thatcher is re-elected on Thursday, the middle-aged won’t have much to worry about?


Tomorrow I hope to write about Star Wars cartoons.

(*) Four letter word beginning with C and ending with UNT removed on edit.

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