Aren’t things a bit… weird right now? Aren’t they? A bit odd? Everywhere I look Britain seems to be glitching slightly, news melting under the gentlest light, people fixed in 10-minute yawns. Last week I was walking through central London on a frosty evening when, upon turning a corner, I found myself suddenly in the crush of a crowd, young people dressed in glitter and lipstick and screaming with a kind of desperate joy. I panicked a little. This was the most people I’d been in contact with for two years, each one a stranger, two in pink furs, and I got that feeling again, the same feeling I’d had when I looked out of the window at falling leaves only to realise a moment later that they were in fact discarded face masks. The feeling that nobody, nothing, is yet quite right.
I’d stumbled, it turned out, into a crowd of Lady Gaga fans outside the House of Gucci premiere – on my way home later that night teenagers in full Gucci looks sat on the pavement in Leicester Square eating McNuggets through lace gloves. It was a Tuesday, and not far away Richard Ratcliffe was entering his third week camping outside the Foreign Office, writing of his young daughter, “She knows that Daddy is on hunger strike to get Boris Johnson to bring Mummy home.” The whole country seems poised, confused. Johnson, unmasked in a hospital, is at its centre, misdirecting traffic.
For the cost of the Covid-testing contract awarded to the private healthcare company Owen Paterson lobbied for, Britain could have paid its debts to Iran, which would have meant both Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her husband might be home in their own bed. This disconnect adds to the sense that the government is playing with money like an uncle at lunch, pulling coins from behind our ears then making them disappear again.
The more we hear about MPs and their cash – like Sir Geoffrey Cox, who earned nearly £1m last year from legal work, most of it done from the British Virgin Islands, or Iain Duncan Smith, who has a £25,000-a-year second job advising a company that now provides the NHS with 92% of its non-alcohol sanitiser, or Sajid Javid, who took a £150,000 a year second job with JP Morgan before returning to the Cabinet because, “It’s good to have experience that is not all about politics,’ (a claim that might have held more weight had any of these politicians “experiences” been, for eg, as a cleaner or lorry driver) – the more warped our current world appears.
The FT quoted an anonymous backbencher as saying: “There’s no way I could be an MP without my outside interests. My wife works full-time, I’ve got kids and need the money for childcare.” Which makes you sort of hum contemplatively for a minute, running over the recent history in your mind. Recent history that includes his party voting to take £20 a week from the poorest people in the country, increasing the child poverty rate to one in every three children. If he’s having trouble budgeting on a salary of £82,000 (plus expenses), the first thought is, perhaps it wasn’t the most sensible idea for him to take a job deciding how to spend taxpayers’ money. And then, hey, how about campaigning for legislation that makes living here less upsettingly expensive?
For me, someone who dips only their littlest toe into politics, this government’s belief that cash is one thing for us and another for them, that there is more than one reality available at any one time, occasionally brings me out in a sort of dissociative state. Is this a particularly weird time or has this always been the way?
I follow a number of “No context” accounts on social media, snapshots of something – a TV show, a writer, Britain itself – out of the context in which they first appeared. A typical example might show the dystopian horror of our daily life with a quote from Stath Lets Flats, or a single screenshotted headline, “Fury after Morrisons wouldn’t sell couple meat pies before 9am.” And right now, the country seems similarly unmoored. The feeling is on a continuum with the unease I experience walking back out into the post-lockdown world with a voice in each ear, one whispering, “Everything’s fine,” the other laughing manically.
It’s not just the politics, though those definitely contribute – I’m thinking now of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar recently debating a proposed amendment to the Voyeurism Act with the demented example of a man who, photographing his wife on a beach “for his own sexual gratification”, happened to catch a breastfeeding woman in the background. No, it’s the anxiety, the vagueness about what is ordinary and what is remarkable. Being suddenly aware of the privilege of small freedoms, walking through Robert Dyas touching each toaster with reverence. The dread with every ping that signals a new message from school. Is this current sense of weirdness a temporary hangover after a very strange year, or is this what they meant by the new normal? If so, I’m going to need a minute.