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  • David Mathews

The Columnist Manifesto



Sir Arthur’s grandchildren have been entertaining him. He’s getting over the pulled muscle from trying to follow the online fitness guru they introduced him to, but he remains shocked at how much his reaction time has worsened since he last put it to the test.

‘Oslo found an old Whack-a-Mole game in the attic,’ he said. ‘“Pretend they’re the Cabinet, Grandad, and they’re popping up at the daily briefing.” He’s only seven, for goodness sake.’

Arthur was trounced in the game by Oslo, and later by Helsinki, the lad’s younger sister.

Arthur and I were in my garden, ostensibly catching up on the slight variations in our daily routines that constitute the days of the week. But it wasn’t long before we were on familiar ground.

Had the PM’s metaphors become more puerile? Arthur and I hunted for evidence that Mr Johnson’s cognition had improved on the rough parallels we had become used to. Not really, given that the PM likened a Covid-19 lockdown to a nuclear strike. We thought it a hyperbolic comparison that lacked the careful calculation we once expected of government in matters of life and death.

‘But that’s the point,’ said Arthur. ‘It’s lazy thinking. Draw a trite analogy and move on. No need to examine consequences, exceptions, contradictions and all the shades of grey that serious thinkers bother with. Johnson finds out what he thinks when he speaks, and then he moves on before he has to understand the matter.

‘However,’ went on the good psychiatrist, ‘I’ve spotted something more significant than the poor man’s ignorance of the intricacies of risk and so on. Have a guess.’

Muddled messages?

‘But they’ve only recently gone firm on face covering.’

Arthur is due to have his ears syringed, and I explained that I had said muddled not muffled, but we reckoned both applied.

‘But anyway, not that,’ he said. ‘Try again,’.

Grandiosity with a helping of nationalistic condescension, everything ‘world-beating’, and all that?

True, but ….

I was happy to continue guessing, but I realised that I was unlikely to read Arthur’s mind as acutely as he tends to read mine, so I broke out the Madeira, poured the man a glass of Verdelho, and waited.

After a sip and a nod of approval: ‘Johnson’s a journalist. Not in a million years the man you’d send to report a war or a famine, but a scribbler at the lighter end of the trade, in what he would no doubt call the ‘paddling pool of journalism’, were he not one of its practitioners. In other words, a columnist. Each week you get out a story that earns you applause and a chuckle, plus a bob or two, but you take no responsibility for the truth of it or the consequences.’

It’s only words?

‘Quite. Trouble starts when the columnist believes that their meanderings mean something in the real world …’

… and they sell the tosh to the voters …

‘… and turn governing into a weekly column for us as audience, not citizens.’

Just then we heard about Johnson’s obesity pitch, tossed into the weekend’s news after years of unmet promises. Why, we wondered? Because Johnson, like any columnist, had turned to his own experience for material: lost a bit of weight; fit as a butcher’s dog; come on, the rest of you. What’s that, an eating disorder, can’t afford better food? Don’t be a gloomster.

‘But it’s not just Johnson,’ said Arthur. ‘Mr Gove and his missus are of the same ilk. Cummings’s wife too, Ms Wakefield, she who drives only in Texas, slaloms there, indeed, according to her column. Been a councillor, any of them, learned how things work? Nope. Had to fill in a VAT return, apply for export licences, source PPE, work out how to get perishables through customs, done anything at all that they are making others do? Course not. Columnists don’t dirty their hands. But bang out a few hundred words of untried schemes that appeal to the Mail and the Telegraph, and the week’s government is done.’

Arthur had quite depressed himself, but not only on his own behalf.

‘What do they wish for us, beyond our compliance in their fixations? I don’t mean “the country” as a vague entity, but you and me. No-one knows. “Global Britain” says nothing about justice, or community, or purpose, or how you and I shall live. It has, you might say, no soul. Are we in the picture at all, and where, for God’s sake, are little Oslo and Helsinki?’


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