My parents gave me a subscription to The Spectator in 1984, when I was 11. When I was 12, I wrote a letter to the editor, criticising the progressive views of the Bishop of Durham, and Charles Moore — who had just become the editor at the age of 27 — published it under the headline ‘Very young fogey’. Who knows what a weekly diet of The Spectator did to my impressionable mind? Is Taki responsible for my taking up martial arts? Or Roger Scruton for my views on ugly buildings? I think it was the book reviewers, so unintimidated by even the grandest book, who made the greatest impression. They made the most flattering assumptions about readers — that I would have read Osip Mandelstam, and had spent months with curlews, and made a close study of Pugin interiors. When I edited my school magazine I copied The Spectator right down to the font and the column shape. Such reverence is hard to eliminate: I was embarrassingly honoured when Charles Moore gave me high marks as a ‘real conservative’ two months ago.
Except I am not technically a Conservative any more. I voted against no deal. (For the record I am pushing for Brexit and against Remain but think no deal would lead to uncertainty, damage and division. This is particularly true for farmers in my constituency.) The Prime Minister responded by deselecting me as the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border, and trying to call an election. So having resigned from the cabinet only six weeks ago, I may find myself out of what remains of my job in six weeks’ time. I will be particularly sorry about this because I feel I am beginning to learn about some of the really tough hidden issues in Britain. Running for the leadership in June gave me the opportunity to explore areas outside my constituency — in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland, from Derry/Londonderry to Wigan. Last week, the last of the parliamentary holiday, I have been walking through communities in the north-east between Newcastle and Hartlepool.
Last Thursday, I was in a food bank, in a church, which was feeding 70 people. The young Nigerian man who was studying aeronautical engineering was fit and confident. But he was the exception. A homeless man could have been any age between 20 and 30 – his skin was a raw red, he was hunched, one eye was half-closed. His flat stare implied that he had combined his heroin with street Valium. In Glasgow, I was told that the homeless simply sit, with their cup out, and when it has accumulated £10, their dealer comes and empties the cup and drops off the heroin. In a park by Saltmarket I found half an acre of ground, covered in discarded needles, and equipment for cooking drugs. The life expectancy of the heaviest drinkers is 29, and of the heroin addicts, 46. At least in Sunderland and Hartlepool there are some services, which you can access – for addiction or support. But I found that there was almost nothing for the addicts in Easington colliery, where houses cost £15,000, and nothing has replaced the mine.
It was difficult to learn from professionals in charities – they seemed so allergic to Tory politicians that any questions were immediately diverted into furious attacks on austerity. I had more luck with volunteers. Mary chatted to me while handing over bags of condensed milk and cereal. She had been coming to help in the food bank every week for the last two years. And seemed to know everyone. ‘This girl has removed herself from school at 14 – I’m trying to convince her to go back. Them? They’re drunk (a flailing fist-fight had erupted between two women near the statue of Our Lady). I’m not sure why they are queuing for the kids’ food – they don’t have kids. How did she afford those hair extensions? They cost £70…’ I loved her energy and cheerfulness – and lack of solemn piety. ‘Right’ she said at the end, ‘that’s my guilt dealt with for the week – I’m going paddleboarding.’ The answer has to begin with recruiting, training and backing more Marys: thoughtful, realistic, good-humoured people – some in social, youth and probation work, some volunteers – patiently helping people through all the challenges: from addiction to a simple lack of hope.
I’ve just finished reading Blitzed, a beautifully researched book about drugs in Nazi Germany. The Blitzkrieg was fuelled, it seems, on crystal meth — it allowed the panzer drivers to go for three days without sleep and gave suicidal confidence to the waves of attacking German troops. The success of a reckless charge, against all odds, just strengthened their optimism. By 1944 Hitler was maintaining the Führer confidence with six injections a day. Some were cocktails of pig’s blood (which didn’t affect his belief that he was a vegetarian). But increasingly it was combinations of heroin and methamphetamine. The generals — astonished at his optimism in the face of all negative reports on every front — assumed he must have a secret weapon. The secret was chemically induced.
Yesterday, I was worrying about my cherry trees — what we call ‘Gean’ in my part of Britain and what the Spectator reader would call prunus avium. We planted 40 of them to mark our wedding seven years ago. One is thick, healthy, and 20 feet high. The others are in terrible states — black and wilting leaves, leaves shredded by aphids, barks torn to the core by roe-deer. They all share the same sun, in the same field, and I have put new shelters around all of them, but after seven years some are barely four foot tall. Twice I have replaced some of the most sickly, so there are now three batches struggling in the field. Every spring I hope the problem will be solved. I suspect the soil and the cherries simply don’t agree. But I cannot seem to change course. I am a great one for accusing other people of fairytale optimism, about Iraq, Afghanistan or no-deal Brexit. But when it comes to my cherry trees my megalomaniac fantasies are on full display: failure is not an option.