I am currently sporting a plaster cast on my left arm which is further encased in a sling. People wonder solicitously whether I have been attacked by enraged human-rights lawyers or serial adulterers. Alas, the truth is rather less heroic. Having had a swimming lesson, I slipped on the changing-room floor; putting out my hand to break my fall, I managed to break my wrist as well. Apparently, I have something called a Colles’ fracture, where one bone is pushed into the other. ‘We’re going to have to pull them apart right away!’ breezily announces the casualty doctor. I inwardly curse all those pieces I have written extolling stoicism and stiff upper lips, and wonder whether it is possible actually to die of fright. Nurses pile into the room to watch the fun, as one of them holds on to my shoulder while the doctor grips my fingers tightly, steadies himself on the floor, and…. Actually it was fine. It didn’t hurt much at all; just felt a bit weird being racked on the NHS.
So why am I having swimming lessons at my age? I was never taught to swim properly as a child. Putting my head under water was out of the question. But I just got fed up with watching other people having fun powering up and down the pool, while I pathetically slunk in the shallow end. So I decided it was finally time to gain respect among the toddlers. A friend recommended a brilliant instructor, Steven Shaw, who specialises in sad cases like me. He applies to swimming the principles of the Alexander technique, which are all about breathing and balance. The results were almost instantly remarkable. By lesson four, I was able to float with my head submerged — and even let go of Steven for two or three seconds. What a triumph! Then I got out of the pool and broke my wrist. Now I have to endure people chortling that exercise is dangerous. Very funny, I don’t think.
I go on the BBC’s Question Time, which is being transmitted from the Oxford Union. On arrival, we run the gauntlet of a pro-hunting demonstration outside, which has assembled under the mistaken impression that Alun Michael, the minister in charge of the Bill, is on the panel. Before the show starts, a member of the audience outs a group of pro-hunting demonstrators who are sitting in the front row apparently with placards stuffed up their jumpers to whip out at a suitable juncture. There is a brief discussion about throwing them out, but they are allowed to stay as long as they keep their placards out of sight. Thus the rules of engagement for a participatory democracy are upheld.
I am on with Lord Heseltine, Sir Clement Freud, Peter Tatchell and the Home Office minister Caroline Flint. As is almost invariably the case these days, I am aghast at the sanctimonious intolerance and baying irrationality of public debate. It isn’t just the whoops of audience delight at the Michael Moore-esque demagoguery over Iraq displayed by Hezza and Peter Tatchell which chill the blood. It is their denunciations of Rocco Buttiglione, the EU justice commissioner who is in the dock for saying disobliging things about women and homosexuals. I don’t care for some of his reported comments, but he appears to have the kind of conservative views which are likely to be shared by millions of Christians, Muslims and other religious folk. Are all of them now to be cast into outer darkness and barred from public office, too? Afterwards, viewers email me. What has happened to this country’s liberal values, they say? They may well ask.
In the green room after the show, I get embroiled in a discussion about Iraq. Someone addresses me as ‘Mrs Wolfowitz’ and pleasantly observes that I appear to have become even more ‘right wing’. I grind my teeth at this and say that, on the contrary, it is he who is the extremist. The reaction is comical. His mouth soundlessly opens and shuts. How can he possibly be an extremist? He has the world-view of the Guardian, Independent and the BBC, which is morally, intellectually and politically unchallengeable. Anyone who doesn’t agree with it is by definition beyond the pale. ‘But you’re really a neocon, aren’t you?’ he finally utters. Ah, the ultimate insult du jour. It’s a bit like being accused of being a Satanist. Come to think of it, even Satanists — for whom, we are happy to note, a warm welcome is waiting in the navy — would probably be regarded more kindly than the neocons. I briefly toy with telling my interlocutor that, yes, like the neocons, I too am a liberal who has been mugged by reality. But since he clearly believes that they are far to the Right of ordinary conservatives, I fear that this subtlety has as much chance of puncturing his prejudice as the proverbial snowball in hell.
The neocons, of course, are the prime villains in the ludicrous conspiracy theory now being peddled in all seriousness throughout mainstream culture. BBC2 is running a three-part series, The Power of Nightmares, which tells us that the threat of global terror is a myth concocted by the neocons in order to enact their sinister, warmongering fantasies and rule the world. Not only that, but the neocons have the same philosophy as the radical Islamists they are fighting! Such a paranoid fantasy would once have been dismissed as the ravings of the kind of person who writes in green ink and capital letters. Now, though, the theory is espoused across the establishment, from armchair generals to both conservative and left-wing newspaper columnists. I am alarmed that rational, factual debate no longer seems possible against this tide of unreason, prejudice and hatred. But no doubt that’s because I’m a war-crazed, neocon extremist.
Bad news at the fracture clinic. The broken bones have moved. I need an immediate operation to put them back and fix them in place with wires. My mind flies to the risk of contracting MRSA from a stay in hospital. ‘MRSA won’t kill you,’ says the doctor in a longsuffering way. ‘This is a myth we have to correct all the time.’ His colleague chips in, ‘People are terrified by two things: Osama bin Laden and MRSA. It’s all the fault of the journalists.’ ‘But she is a journalist!’ says my doctor. So now I’m not only responsible for a conspiracy to plunge the world into war, but for terrifying people about a non-existent risk in our hospitals. Suddenly the underwater world has become much more appealing.
Melanie Phillips is a Daily Mail columnist.