‘I am a columnist for the Daily Telegraph,’ I began a text message to an NHS executive last week. Due to predictive text, the word ‘columnist’ was replaced by ‘communist’. Luckily, I spotted it just in time to delete. But perhaps the error was accurate. Some say we have all come to see the virtue of massive state control. Perhaps we are all communists now, even on the Daily Telegraph, accepting Jeremy Corbyn’s self-assessment that he has been proved right. For a heady moment, it might seem to be the case, but the more one ponders Mr Corbyn’s claim, the odder it sounds. He seems to think that the policies now introduced because of Covid-19 would have been the right ones even if there had been no emergency at all. If he had won office in December, he implies, he would have started to double the national debt, triple unemployment, force bankruptcies, put the population under house arrest, snoop and encourage others to sneak on citizens’ movements and forbidden freedom of worship and freedom of assembly, all without any ill wind from Wuhan. He does not seem to realise that an emergency is, by definition, a dire exception, not a normally desirable way of life. He is guilty of the phenomenon Orwell satirised in Nineteen Eighty-Four — wanting a state of permanent war (if not on people, then on viruses) to secure permanent state control. Those of us who are still not communists can be made to look heartless when we point out that the economy should not be destroyed in the process of defeating the disease. We appear to be putting money before life. No, we are suggesting that the two tend to go together. The word ‘economy’ sounds technical. In fact, in its Greek origin and its early usage in English, it meant ‘The management of a family; the government of a household’ (Johnson’s Dictionary). It is the word for how we make life in society work. Communism is the word for how we make it collapse.
Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, is doing well on television in the crisis. He is stepping up to the role to which the BBC devotes all the energies of its US coverage to filling — the Democrat who could beat Trump. About 35 years ago, I went to a private dinner for President Richard Nixon. In his general remarks, he spoke about the Cold War in the grand and grave tones of a world statesman. During questions, the subject shifted to American domestic politics. Nixon’s tone changed completely. Someone asked him what he thought of the chances of Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, becoming president in the 1988 election. ‘Well,’ Nixon rasped, counting the fingers of his hand as he spoke, ‘He’s New York; he’s Italian; he’s Catholic — three negatives.’ Like father, like son?
Britain has no equivalent of Andrew Cuomo just now, but it is possible to discern somebody who is politely placing himself in the right position if everything goes wrong. Jeremy Hunt lost heavily but honourably to Boris Johnson in last year’s leadership contest. He declined to accept demotion from foreign secretary to defence secretary in Boris’s government, but made no public complaint. Now he is the chairman of the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, for which he is extremely well qualified, having been health secretary for six years. So he is authoritative about Covid-19. His lean and hungry look makes me a little uneasy.
On the ‘count your blessings’ principle, it is worth making a list of benefits of the coronavirus era. These include: no aeroplane noise, no smell of hamburgers, much shorter weekend newspapers, more work for good butchers, and a temporary end to the persecutions of TV Licensing. I am wondering whether to refuse to pay my licence all over again. I am reluctant, since last time it cost me £800, but one reads that non-payment will not be pursued while the plague lasts. Even if it were, could the magistrates’ courts sit to hear the cases?
As one witnesses the virus spreading almost everywhere, I keep thinking of Eliot’s lines from ‘East Coker’ (the second part of Four Quartets):
Our only health is the diseaseIf we obey the dying nurseWhose constant care is not to pleaseBut to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospitalEndowed by a ruined millionaire,Wherein, if we do well, we shallDie of the absolute paternal careThat will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
Eliot is actually speaking of the nature of divine love, especially as exhibited on Good Friday, which offers the human race what could be described as ‘herd immunity’. He uses the word ‘prevents’ in its archaic sense of ‘going before’. If you did not know that, you might think he was writing about the world this month.
When I launched my final volume of the life of Margaret Thatcher (Herself Alone) in October, I was slightly embarrassed by its length. I had promised myself, and possibly others, that it would be shorter than volumes 1 and 2 (860 and 821 pages respectively). In fact, it is 1,008 pages long, although those of continuous prose, as opposed to notes, are a mere 860. The book is even printed on a thinner paper than that of its predecessors, in order not to squash readers lying in bed. In the time of Covid, however, I keep hearing that long is good. Time poverty — the most widespread and grinding form of poverty in the 21st-century developed world — has suddenly vanished for most of the reading public. My book is long, gloriously long, I now boast. Rush out — or rather, stay in — and buy it. With much better timing, Hilary Mantel has done something similar. The Mirror and the Light, the third part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is more than twice the length of the second — weighing in at 883 pages. It was published on 5 March.