Once upon a time, I didn’t really care about politics. Not viscerally. Growing up in a political family, I suppose, you go one of two ways. You know those kids you’ll sometimes see being paraded around by political parents in facepaint and rosettes, waving from shoulders as though born into a cult? I wasn’t like that. More the opposite. Politics was always nearby, and sometimes even interesting, but it was nothing to do with me. Devotees often made me think of those people who support a football team and refer to it as ‘we’. Get over yourself, I always thought. You’re just a spectator.
If you wanted to detect a degree of entitlement in this, I suppose you’d be entitled to. Perhaps it’s a bit like that old German joke about the child who is mute until he is five, to the extent that his parents wonder if he’s been hit on the head. You know the one? Over dinner one night, quite suddenly, he says ‘This soup is tepid’ in crystal clear Hochdeutsche, and his astonished mother asks him why he has never spoken before. ‘Because until now,’ shrugs the boy, ‘everything was satisfactory.’
I daresay that was me until really quite recently. I was interested in politics, sure. I’d write about it, and not always with flippancy. But I didn’t care. I didn’t have to. With the exception of the odd blip, such as the Iraq War, everything was satisfactory.
It isn’t any more. Anything but. Looking back, the equal marriage debate should have been a sign. I really bought into that one. Really cared. Really thought I had a role to play. Maybe I even did. Stonewall, the lobbying charity, gave me an award, not to brag, and I have rarely been more delighted. Still, a small part of me did find it odd to be rewarded not only for the way I wrote but for the views I expressed while doing so. Yes. That was new.
Then came Scotland. Oof. Remember Scotland? That one was a shivering anxiety attack every day for six months. Awake in the night, checking the polls, talking about nothing else. A sense of dread through the day even when you couldn’t remember why. It felt existential, and for a Scottish Londoner it was. This referendum we’re having now might feel stressful, but it’s nothing compared to that. I was so, so glad when it went away.
Although part of me clearly wasn’t. Because part of me now seems to want to recreate that passionate, binary, personal politics whenever I can. Lofty indifference to political parties, thank heavens, is a knack I’ve retained. On any given issue, though, the loftiness escapes me. I don’t just have views, as any columnist ought. I care, like some kind of madman or ‘activist’. Ugh. ‘Activists’. There was even a point last year when, without even expecting to write about it, I found myself spending £3 to join the Labour party, to vote against the election of Jeremy Corbyn. What the hell was that about? Sure, I’d rather Labour were run by somebody I might conceivably vote for, as with all parties. Still, why is this my problem? Why can’t somebody else do it while I just watch?
In a way, I’m glad that the EU referendum is happening, traumatic as it is, because otherwise I’d simply be transferring these new, highly irritating passions somewhere else. As to what has actually happened to me, I have three theories and the first is that it’s simply a bad habit. A mental tic. With a bit of self-discipline and perhaps a bit of cognitive behavioural therapy, perhaps I could win back the disinterest I used to enjoy.
My second theory is Twitter. I waste a lot of time on there. And maybe, just maybe, if you stay up till the small hours idly debating Trump supporters about gun control or students about identity politics or ‘activists’ (ugh) about anything at all, then maybe your brain performs a little dignity-preserving shuffle. Maybe it works to convince you that you really do have an all-consuming interest in this stuff and aren’t just some bored, lonely freak rhetorically masturbating into the night. Could be. Could be.
Only maybe it’s far worse than that. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe, as a white, middle-class man approaching middle age, I am simply beginning to behave in the manner in which white middle-class men in middle age so often do. Which is to say, by erupting into paroxysms of bewildered angst and rage whenever I encounter a bit of the world that threatens not to behave precisely as I want it to. If so, I need to get a grip, and fast. My nonchalance needs to rise again. Otherwise, all this, all of everything, is only going to get worse.
It’s probably the middle-age thing, because I’ve also started gardening. Or, at least, gardening more. Last year, for our tiny yard with the fake plastic grass, somebody gave me a couple of tomato plants which, in time, produced about eight tomatoes. I was very proud.
This year I got carried away. Feeling eight tomatoes hadn’t quite been enough, I planted a whole packet of seeds in a variety of pots. They started on top of the fridge and have gradually moved out doors. Temperamentally speaking, I now realise, I am unsuited to gardening. As far as I can make out, every last seed put up a shoot. Having created life, I could not bear to do what a pro would do and throw the weaklings away. So, whereas last year I had two small plants, this year I have 48. In a month it will be terrifying out there. Does anybody want one?
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.