When Chequers was donated to the nation, the accompanying Act of Parliament was explicit about the intended effect. ‘The better the health of our rulers, the more sanely will they rule,’ it said. Prime ministers need time to think, as well as recuperate, and as Boris Johnson continues his convalescence there, he will be in need of that help. Not only is he still recovering from several days in intensive care, he is also facing a policy problem without precedent — and without good answers.
Red roses are hardly a priority for people in a virus-wrecked global economy, and one day recently the world’s flower market pretty much collapsed. At the vast Aalsmeer auction in Holland, there were scented mountains of unsold roses, gerberas and tulips. Some last stems still find their way into bouquets across a world that has cancelled all gatherings except funerals. But in the coming months, cut flowers might become a sight as rare as bananas were for children in the Blitz.
A striking feature of Covid-19 is how medieval our response has had to be. Quarantine was the way people fought plagues in the distant past. We know by now that it will take many months to get a vaccine, whose job is to prevent you getting the disease. But what about a cure once you have caught it: why is there no pill to take? The truth is that, advanced as medical science is, we are mostly defenceless against viruses.
Sometimes The Spectator goes to press very shortly after election results have been announced. In those instances, Morten Morland, our brilliant cover artist, creates multiple versions so there is a cover for any outcome. These have since been framed and hung at Old Queen Street in the lavatories. Here are three, unseen by the wider public — until now.
Andrew Watts (Tanya Gold)
‘I can’t eat this,’ said The Spectator’s restaurant critic, putting down her fork after one mouthful. Our son, who had not yet decided whether he liked mackerel, immediately declared that it was yucky-poo. The correction of taste is, after all, the function of criticism. When we’re not in lockdown, Tanya leaves the house to be a critic. I am left at home with the boy to eat fish, liver and haggis, all of which he loves when she isn’t here to tell him that they are, objectively, bad.
The Spectator has always known when and how to wield the scalpel. A tour through its history reveals how, from the get-go, it mercilessly parodied the world in which it lived.
When still six weeks young, The Spectator savaged the morbid obsessions of late-Georgian society. The caricaturist George Cruikshank exposed the press’s fetishisation of a contemporary murder: the accompanying article, ‘Points of Horror!!!!’, tartly noted that ‘the taste for murder in the enlightened public’ was ‘so extravagantly eager, that murderers will come to be held in the light of public benefactors’.
Will the recovery be shaped like a V or a U, some other letter or perhaps the Nike swoosh? This is a much-discussed question among economists right now — but it is not the most important question. We’re familiar with the idea of an up-and-down financial crisis where things return to their starting point: we had roller-coasters in the mid-1980s. Even after the global financial crash of 2008-09, financiers still kept their place as masters of the universe.
The Spectator is a child of the 19th century, and damned proud of it. First published in 1828, the link provided by its 10,000 issues to a long-vanished age of Regency waistlines and Romantic poets is one of the great wonders of journalism. Its success was built upon Victorian foundations, yet it is a peculiarity of the current media landscape that The Spectator, the only current affairs magazine actually to have been published in the 19th century, should in many ways seem the least Victorian of the lot.
A conventional hierarchy of print media would put serious journalism at the top. Far beneath that would be tabloid journalism. And then at the very bottom would be advertising.
Except, in one respect, I think that order should be reversed. Yesterday’s advertising is much more interesting than yesterday’s serious journalism.
I suspect this is because advertising, like tabloid journalism, reflects what people really care about — and always have done.
When Graham Greene impulsively took up film reviewing for The Spectator in 1935, he was not yet the renowned literary figure he was to become, and thus, like so many other writers in those parlous economic times, prosaically in need of cash. As it happened, the confluence of interests between a 30-year-old novelist of modest commercial success and Derek Verschoyle, The Spectator’s literary editor from 1932 to 1939, resulted in something extraordinary — for there is nothing prosaic about these reviews.
When I say goodbye to Sir Salman Rushdie in his offices at New York University in Lower Manhattan in early March, we bump elbows. Not that it’s much more than a gesture, by this stage: we shook hands unthinkingly on first meeting, and we’d just shaken hands again. It’s a novelty, still halfway to being a joke. As I descend in the lift to Cooper Square, it occurs to me that if I’ve given Rushdie coronavirus I will be halfway to achieving what the mullahs couldn’t.
It was the week after New Year’s Eve, strings of fairy lights still dangling from the trees and silver stars decorating the windows, when they discovered the dead birds. Dozens, at first. Then more. Four thousand, six hundred and twenty-eight in total. Goldfinches, greenfinches, bullfinches, skylarks, reed buntings, yellowhammers, grey wagtails and red-throated pipits — those long-distance migrants with their rusty breasts and high-pitched songs, cut short.
Empathy and kindness in these difficult times come more easily to some than others, but I’m trying. I had heart surgery in November to repair a faulty mitral valve. Recovery has been terribly scientific. On my daily walk, a heart monitor is synched with an app on my phone so through earphones I can hear my heart rate as well as encouraging messages in a voice I find indistinguishable from the American cultural critic Bonnie Greer.
Viewers of the BBC News channel, now that Zoom shows talking heads in their own homes, want before anything to have a good look at the sitting rooms or study shelves of daily newspaper reviewers. But often this important task is distracted by disturbing face-foliage grown during lockdown. Jack Blanchard from Politico presents a face mottled with brown and grey like lichen on an old wall, and the curvaceous chin of James Rampton from the Independent bursts out with stubble like a ginger Desperate Dan.
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