I know it’s unfashionable, but I rather miss Chris Grayling. Not just because he was always good value to sketch, but also because there was an integrity in his commitment to never finding a job he couldn’t do badly. In a way, he was a symbol of simpler times when incompetence hadn’t been entirely shrouded in duplicity at government level. Having warmed up by undermining the justice system with a disastrous part-privatisation of the probation service, Grayling then set to work at the transport department, where his crowning glory was to award a ferry contract to a company that had no ferries. During his time in office, it is estimated that Grayling cost the country more than £3bn. If we had been paying him to do nothing, we’d all have been better off. Since Grayling was removed from government, I have been looking for someone to replace him and may just have found my man. Step forward James “The Dud” Duddridge, a junior minister in the Brexit department who, like Grayling, appears to have been chosen for his hopelessness. Over the past week, he has twice been sent out to answer tricky urgent questions that more senior ministers wanted to avoid, and on both occasions he has had a disastrous time at the dispatch box. The best reasons he could give for the government failing to publish the full 44-page legal text of the new Brexit proposals was that it might confuse MPs if they knew what they were being asked to vote on and, besides, if he hadn’t been allowed to read them he couldn’t see why anyone else should. A star is born.
It is sometimes said that you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but at the 5×15 event at an amazing 600-seater converted art deco cinema in Hackney, I spent much of the evening feeling starstruck. The concept behind 5×15, created by Rosie Boycott, Daisy Leitch and Eleanor O‘Keeffe, is unique and quite brilliant. Rather than getting one speaker to talk at length on one subject, they invite five people to talk for 15 minutes. No pre-written scripts, no thinly disguised sales pitches for new books, just something informed and from the heart. This evening’s event slightly broke the mould as it was technically 6×15 with six of us on the lineup. Jack Harries from Extinction Rebellion, the poet Nikita Gill, the Labour MP Jess Phillips, the former director of the Southbank and now founder of Women of the World, Jude Kelly, the author and screenwriter Nick Hornby and me. I hadn’t met Jack or Nikita before, but I have long been in awe of Jess, Jude and Nick and all of them were even more impressive and charming up close than they appear from a distance. Even so, I did come away feeling I might have let the side down a little. The other five all gave talks that were passionate and uplifting: a tonic for the soul. Mine on Brexit hopefully had its funny moments but probably left most of the audience in despair. When the organiser in the front row flashed up my two-minute warning – the time limit is sacrosanct – I desperately tried to wrack my brain for a positive note on which to end. Only I couldn’t think of anything. So I could only wind up mid-sentence with a brief apology for being so depressing. I could only hope everyone thought that was a brilliant metaphor for Brexit. Out of time and out of ideas.
My birthday. Today I was 63 and all I could really think of was: “How did I get this old?” and: “Where did all the time go to?” I can vividly remember that when my parents reached my age, I rather dismissively considered them to be pretty much at the tail-end of their lives. My father was winding down his career as a vicar and planning for his retirement and my mother had already stopped being a full-time counsellor with Relate. Now that I am their age, I don’t feel a bit ready to ease up. And not just because I don’t have a pension that will see me out on a successions of cruises. Though I could have dodged a bullet by missing out on the one that was meant to go to Iceland and wound up in Glasgow instead. Rather I rail against my knees for having given out on me and preventing me from being as active as I once was and still find it hard to forgive myself for having wasted an entire decade of my life as a heroin addict. While others were just starting out on their adult lives I was hellbent on nullifying mine. Much of what I have done since has been an act of compensation and atonement to myself and my family. Still, I am hopeful of a good few years yet. I am still waiting to fulfil my potential as a partner, father, friend and writer. I do have one thing on my side, though: a dog. Research based on studies of 4 million people around the world has found that people who own a dog lower their risk of dying from any cause by 24% and by even more from cardiovascular disease. Perhaps if I got four dogs I could become immortal. Herbert Hound, I am counting on you.
Much of the day was spent stuck in front of the TV at work waiting to find out how the meeting with Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson had gone. I watched them drive into Thornton Manor, the Wirral wedding venue where Coleen Rooney – in simpler times before her spat with Rebekah Vardy – celebrated her 21st birthday, just before lunch. Then there was a three-hour delay before an unexpected joint statement saying they could see “a pathway” to a Brexit deal. Whether it was the same pathway, they didn’t make clear. Trying to unpick exactly what had and had not been agreed proved tricky, not least because if the EU have learned one thing from dealing with Johnson, it is that you can’t trust him to stick to his promises. He has a habit of telling people what he thinks they want to hear, only to disappoint at a later date. There was also the feeling that neither the taoiseach nor the prime minister wanted to be seen to be the one to collapse the talks, so they both had a vested interest in prolonging negotiations. But I couldn’t help wondering how Theresa May must be feeling right now. If there is a deal to be done, it seems certain it is Johnson who has given way by denying the DUP a veto and creating an all-Ireland customs union in all but name with a hard border between the UK and Ireland. Something May proposed months ago, only for the DUP and the ERG, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, to dismiss it out of hand. Now it is just possible that Johnson will emerge as a Tory hero for coming up with almost precisely the deal that cost May her job. Johnson’s no-deal tough talk may all along have been a cunning plan to get the UK to agree to everything the EU wanted.
I seem to have spent most of the last 60 years acquiring expensive habits, though thankfully the ones I now have are life-enhancing rather than life-limiting. Yesterday evening I was back at the opera house to reclaim my soul while Don Giovanni lost his. It was another wonderful evening, the highlight of which came in the interval. I had been talking to my wife about how sensational the soprano, Malin Byström, had been in the role of Donna Anna and that I was certain we had seen her sing in Salome two years ago. Not having a programme, I asked a woman next to me in the bar if I could have a quick read of hers. She looked a bit reluctant, so I explained I just wanted to check Malin Byström’s potted biography as the purity of her voice and her ability to engage with the audience were breathtaking. The woman then smiled broadly and told me she was Malin’s mother. After which we had a – for me – unforgettable conversation. This was the second time I had seen this production – the previous time was 18 months ago – but it is by far the best of the many I have seen as it makes the women complicit in the seduction rather than hapless victims. Do go. At its core, Don Giovanni is an opera of power, lust, obsession and not giving a shit and I couldn’t stop the image of Boris Johnson coming into my head at several moments. My friend Patrick has a theory that one of the reasons Boris likes to use a bicycle is that it is the philanderer’s ideal mode of transport. No parking issues, no automatic number-plate recognition, no gobby cab drivers or nosey passengers on the bus or tube. I look forward to an updated production of Don Giovanni where the Don travels from assignation to assignation by bike.
Digested week digested: Deal or No Deal?