Happy New Year from me and James Bond!
I had a lovely Christmas, thank you. Well, I had a lovely Christmas Day. I ate, I drank, I gazed lovingly at the pile of books I had bought my partner. Books that had a *remarkable* overlap with the ones I was dying to read. In the evening, we watched the new James Bond. I was relieved when he managed to save the world from a lethal virus and cried at the end.
The next morning, my partner woke up with a tickle in his throat. “Yup,” he said as two pink lines appeared on the plastic strip. There’s a hierarchy of things you can feel when you hear a word like “yup”. The first, of course, is the big one. Is this it? Lovely knowing you, and now I’d better organise your funeral before the next lockdown. Shall I book the Old Red Lion?
The second is a kind of horrified fascination, perhaps along the lines of “what do you mean, Mary’s having a baby?” We have both been so careful, people call us paranoid. Lateral flow tests before meeting anyone inside. Treating supermarkets like Covid wards. This, it seems, is not enough. Oh James Bond, why weren’t you at Aldi in Daventry on Christmas Eve?
And the third feeling you can get when you hear the word “yup” is like a stab to the heart. Oh my God. The next door neighbours are going to have to cancel their Boxing Day drinks.
I am my mother’s daughter and this was the one that nearly finished me. When a phone call and text got no response, I was the one who had to skulk round, feeling like Allegra Stratton making a statement to the press outside her (huge, Georgian) house. They were out. Their son was matter of fact. When I set off for my PCR test, an hour later, they were outside the house. They smiled. Thank God they smiled. Their tests, like mine, were negative. Hallelujah, a saviour is born.
Once it was clear that we hadn’t wrecked anyone else’s Christmas plans, we could relax. When I say relax, I mean my partner could nurse his slight cold from the comfort of his prison. I could scuttle around in masks, bringing him drinks, meals and snacks. His sense of taste has been fine, unfortunately, and robbed me of an excuse not to cook.
It hasn’t been quite the Christmas we planned. No trip to see his sisters and sons. No friends to stay. No cosy evenings watching Succession. But I did manage to pilfer one of the books from his pile and gorged on Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss. It was indeed bliss. I loved it so much I read almost every sentence twice.
Since then, I have been in a state of book paralysis. There are so many books I want to read, I literally don’t know where to start. I’m like a sugar addict who has suddenly been allowed in a sweet shop. I keep picking books up and putting them down. This one? No, this one? No, this one?
Like anyone who is lucky enough to read for their work, I’ve almost lost the art of reading for pure pleasure. There are the books I have to review. There are the books I have to read for my podcast. There are the books I have to read for professional development. (I’ve recently qualified as a coach.) There are books written by friends. I want to read them. I want to read all of them. But there are four piles of books in my study waiting to be read, and they’re each about 20 books high.
And then there’s the news. A twitch that strikes every few minutes. It’s my job, sort of, though I only get paid for it when I’m on the Jeremy Vine Show or Sky. Hmm. Let me just check. Oh dear, that’s a lot of cases. Oh dear, they’re out of lateral flow tests. One in 25 people had Covid in England last week, you say? So infectious that it “almost just needs a whiff of infected breath”, Professor Openshaw? Bloody hell!
(But I slept in a petri-dish and didn’t get it. It’s like the Kathy Bates character in Fried Green Tomatoes, who slams her car into the car of a young woman who steals her parking spot and yells “I’m older and I have more insurance”. I’m younger, and my booster is more recent.)
I’m like James Bond in the control room. Let me check that graph. Let me twiddle that knob. The only trouble is that I have no power whatsoever. Like nearly eight billion other people on the planet, I can only watch and wonder if this thing will last for ever, if any of us will ever be able to make a plan again.
Still, in my roomful of books, I can read. I can write. I can learn. I can even learn how not to look at the news so often, if I follow the advice of Johann Hari in his new book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. Johann is a former colleague of mine from The Independent who’s now an internationally bestselling writer. His books come with puffs from Hillary Clinton and Naomi Klein. His TED Talks on addiction and depression have been viewed more than 80 million times.
Yes, please. I’ll have what he’s having. Where do you get it?
His excellent book offers plenty of tips on the attention issue, at least. More importantly, it offers insight, and so does the conversation I had with him, which will be on my podcast a week today. At the start of the book, he talks about the three months he spent in Provincetown, with no access to 4G or wi fi. He learnt, he says, to read again, to think again, to dream again.
“In Provincetown,” he says, “I could see more clearly than I ever had before in my own life – my own thoughts, my own goals, my own dreams. I want to live in that light – the light of knowing, of achieving our ambitions, of being fully alive – and not in the menacing orange light of it all burning down”.
It can certainly all feel as if it’s “all burning down”. The planet is burning. The virus is diversifying, which would be fine if it were a business, but it’s not.
But we are here. Our best chance of staying here is to vaccinate ourselves, our neighbours and the world. Meanwhile, we have to live our lives. This is life now. We hope it won’t be like this for ever, but our hearts are still pumping, our neurons are still firing and our brains are continuing to offer us whole Uffizi-fuls of images, to liven up our day. Oh good, here’s Botticelli’s Primavera. Oh no, here’s Bosch’s Hell. Time for another piece of Christmas cake. Mmm. That was nice.
Yesterday, gazing out at pigeons pecking at termite mounds in the field next to my window, I felt so happy to be alive I started to cry. It reminded me of that moment in Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
This is what we have, folks. Throbbing, brilliant, electric, beautiful life. In 2022, let’s make the most of it. Even when we’re stuck in one room.
PS I’m back on Sky News reviewing the papers tomorrow night, at 10.30pm and 11.30pm. My bloke says he’s looking forward to seeing me without a mask.