Musings in lockdown: The Vulnerables, by Sigrid Nunez, reviewed

The Vulnerables represents Sigrid Nunez’s foray into pandemic literature, a genre we can only expect to see grow in the coming years. The topic is handled with a level of absurdity, making elements of the story eerily (and sometimes traumatically) recognisable. Nunez’s musings on how writing can represent the strangeness of life are never more poignant than when she reflects on the ‘uncertain spring’ of 2020. You’d think she was inventing it if you hadn’t been there yourself. The question of how to write when life is stranger than fiction is at the centre of the book. ‘More and more, fictional story-telling is coming across as beside the point,’ she

Ménage à trois: Day, by Michael Cunningham, reviewed

Set over the course of the same April day, with morning, afternoon and night ascribed to consecutive years, Michael Cunningham’s Day is built around time’s march towards an inevitable ending. This feeling of being caught up in time and trapped by its onward force is shared by the novel’s small cast of characters. A married couple, Isabel and Dan Byrne, along with Isabel’s brother Robbie, are struggling with their floundering careers, ageing bodies and their place in the world. They are also balancing a painful platonic love triangle, with both Dan and Isabel more in love with Robbie than with each other. The claustrophobic domesticity of the novel is amplified

Sex and the Famous Five

Generations of readers of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series have enjoyed the books without having to contemplate the erotic properties of the canine member of the quintet. After reading Nicholas Royle’s one-of-a-kind fantasia on Blyton and David Bowie, they may never be able to do so again. Royle writes confidently that ‘the most obvious route to thinking about sex in the Famous Five books is Timmy the dog’. Once this bombshell has been absorbed, he knocks the reader down again by writing: ‘Timmy is a big dog. He is a big-tongued dog. He must have had a huge donger too.’ The idea behind David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the Sun

TikTok is giving our children Tourette’s

Shortly after the first Covid lockdown ended, doctors began to notice something so strange that at first they struggled to explain it. There appeared to be a sudden rise in the number of children being referred with Tourette’s syndrome. Tourette’s is a rare neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by repetitive, involuntary movements or sounds called ‘tics’. While mild tics are relatively common in children, specialists suddenly started seeing large numbers of children displaying complex and debilitating symptoms. Dr Alasdair Parker, president of the British Paediatric Neurology Association, said in 2021: ‘The most severe tics disorders I have seen over the past 20 years have all presented in the last five months to

Covid and the politics of panic

It is 15 months since Sweden’s Coronavirus Commission presented its final report. The 770-page document analysed how the country handled the pandemic and came up with numerous suggestions for how things might have been done better. The initial response, it concluded, was too slow, but the report vindicated the decision to make social distancing measures voluntary rather than compulsory. Why, then, has it taken the UK’s own Covid inquiry so long even to get going? In two weeks’ time the chair of the inquiry, Baroness Hallett, will finally start to hear evidence for module one – which looks at Britain’s pandemic preparedness – but she has said that she expects

Much of the Covid consensus has been proved to be tripe

Three years ago this week marked my first misgivings about the government’s Covid lockdown. Sure, I was late to that particular party – my wife, for example, had been carping viciously for the previous two months. But my rational assessment of lockdown was perhaps tilted by the gentle, bucolic magic of the thing itself. I think I have never enjoyed a more pleasant time. The weather was beautiful, and out in the Kent countryside, where I then lived, one could enjoy it to its full. Wildlife was less shy than usual, perhaps a consequence of the state-imposed quietude. Occasionally city dwellers would infest our country lanes and I had great

The farming year in 18th-century Sussex

You may (or may not) already know this, but researching the long 18th century in 2023 is rarely a life-affirming, paradigm-shifting conversation over wine with Plato in the groves of academe. It is seldom, even, a couple of tins of warm lager on the train home after guesting on an episode of Start the Week. It is sometimes, though, sitting in an archive transcribing the traces of long-vanished lives, conscious of the passing of time, quietly excited but still wondering if any of this actually matters, whether the partial recovery of someone else’s life really is the fullest way of living your own. Reading Ian Marchant’s deeply moving new book

Covid’s legacy: how will China remember the pandemic?

48 min listen

Three years ago, as people across China welcomed the Year of the Rat, a new virus was taking hold in Wuhan. In London, the conversation at my family’s New Year dinner was dominated by the latest updates, how many masks and hand sanitisers we’d ordered.  Mercifully, Covid didn’t come up at all as we welcomed the Year of the Rabbit this weekend, though my family in China are still recovering from their recent infections. The zero Covid phase of the pandemic is well and truly over. So what better time to reflect on the rollercoaster of the last three years? In exchange for controlling the virus, China’s borders were shut

Liz Truss can’t ignore the issue of NHS reform

It’s hard to think of any Prime Minister who has entered office surrounded by such low expectations. Liz Truss was backed by just over half of Conservative party members and secured barely an eighth of MPs in the first ballot. Her critics dismiss her as a lightweight, wholly unsuited to tackling the problems now facing the country. The presumption is not just for trouble, but calamity: the fastest drop in living standards in living memory, followed by prolonged recession and worse. So if Truss manages to send inflation into reverse and makes a noticeable cut to taxes by Easter, it will be seen as quite an achievement. She has also

Letters: Why we obeyed lockdown

Why we allowed it Sir: In her article ‘Why didn’t more people resist lockdown?’ (3 September), Lionel Shriver partially answers her own question. Priti Patel told us it was our public duty to shop our neighbours if they had three friends to tea, and our previously invisible police force started to patrol parks and beaches with unprecedented vigour, with a threat of £1,000 fines for malfeasance. There was no eagerness, but the public were glued to the nightly broadcasts from No. 10, where the PM told us we would be little better than murderers if we didn’t obey the diktats. The fear all this created is still evident as I

Vaccines disguised the errors of our lockdown policy

Liz Truss’s statement that she would never authorise another lockdown and The Spectator’s interview with Rishi Sunak have triggered a new debate about whether the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 were justified. The most widely discussed positions are that lockdown occurred too late or that there should never have been any lockdowns at all, alongside the view that what happened was about right. But there is another position here – in many ways perhaps the most obvious position – that rarely gets an airing. When lockdown was first introduced, Boris Johnson said the point was to ‘squash the sombrero’ of cases, so that the peak number of hospitalisations each week

Letters: Lockdown saved lives

Lockdown saved lives Sir: Rishi Sunak presents an alarming picture of what happened during lockdown (‘The lockdown files’, 27 August) – and one echoed by lockdown sceptics who claim that Covid policy was a disaster, stoked by fear and based on questionable scientific advice. Worst of all, they cry, the trade-offs were not even discussed. But none of this is true. I know because I sat around the cabinet table as politicians, scientists, economists and epidemiologists agonised over the extent to which lockdown would devastate lives and livelihoods. It was not an easy decision for anyone. Looking back, it’s clear that the biggest mistake we made wasn’t locking down, but

Lionel Shriver

Why didn’t more people resist lockdown?

Last week’s Spectator interview with Rishi Sunak conveyed the anti-science ‘science’, the paucity of even fag-packet cost-benefit analysis and the ideological lockdown of Boris Johnson’s cabinet that brought forth calamitously extensive lockdowns of everyone else. Ever since, numerous politicians and institutions implicated in this rash experiment have had a vested interest in maintaining the myth that putting whole societies into standby mode, as if countries are mere flatscreens that can be benignly switched on and off by governmental remote, saved many millions of lives. As it will take years for culpable parties to retire, I once feared that a full generation would need to elapse before we recognised lockdowns for

Toby Young

How science became politicised

Here’s a paradox. Over the past two-and-a-half years, a cadre of senior politicians and their ‘expert’ advisers across the world have successfully promoted a series of controversial public policies by claiming they’re based on ‘the science’ rather than a particular moral or ideological vision. I’m thinking of lockdowns and net zero in particular. Yet at the same time, this group has engaged in behaviour that has undermined public confidence in science. Why appeal to the authority of science to win support for a series of politically contentious policies – and then diminish its authority? Take Anthony Fauci, for instance, who recently announced he’s stepping down as chief medical adviser to

What Rishi Sunak gets wrong about lockdown

Rishi Sunak presents an alarming picture of what happened during lockdown in last week’s Spectator interview – one echoed by lockdown sceptics who claim that Covid policy was a disaster, stoked by fear and based on questionable scientific advice. Worst of all, they cry, the trade-offs were not even discussed. But none of this is true – it is Covid revisionism. I know because I sat around the cabinet table as politicians, scientists, economists and epidemiologists agonised over the extent to which lockdown would devastate lives and livelihoods. It was not an easy decision for anyone. We locked down because we knew the cost of ‘letting Covid rip’ was far

We’re at pandemic levels of death. Why is no one talking about it?

At the peak of the lockdowns, thousands were dying every week. Newspaper front pages demanded action. But in the latest week’s data, covering the week to 12 August, some 1,082 more people than would be expected in a normal year died in the UK. These so-called ‘excess deaths’ have averaged 1,000 for 15 weeks of this year. Yet unlike Covid deaths, they are met with near silence. But it isn’t Covid that’s causing these deaths anymore. In the latest figures, published by the ONS, just 6 per cent of English and Welsh deaths had anything to do with Covid. Of nearly 10,000 weekly deaths in England, just 561 mentioned the virus

Bloated waffle: Jitney at the Old Vic reviewed

The Old Vic’s new show, Jitney, has a mystifying YouTube advert which gives no information about the play or the characters. If the producers paid for the marketing themselves, they’d do a better job. The advert fails even to mention that ‘Jitney’ is Pittsburgh slang for ‘taxi’ and that the action is set in a cab firm in the 1970s. The boss, Becker, is a growling despot who dominates his crew of uppity young drivers by glaring at them psychotically. The prattling cabbies hang around the office gossiping about casual sex and petty crime. Or they ogle porno magazines. Or they show off their bedroom technique by thrusting their pelvises

Sheila Hancock takes pride in her irascibility

This book begins with Sheila Hancock wondering why she is being offered a damehood. I must say I slightly wondered too, but it seems that most actresses become dames if they live long enough: vide Joan Collins, Penelope Keith, Joanna Lumley etc. And Hancock, as well as acting and making brilliant appearances on Radio 4’s Just a Minute, also does lots of charity work. She considers refusing the honour because ‘it’s hardly in keeping with my Quaker belief in equality’, but decides ‘no, it would be dreadfully rude and ungracious’. Anyway, she admires the Queen, and also Prince Charles, who left flowers and a handwritten note on her doorstep when

Welcome to the age of post-Covid nihilism

Washington, DC Amid the recent orgy of violence across America, it was the carjackings that finally got me. Lost amid all the mass shootings and gang slayings of late has been another wave of crime: vehicle thefts. In Washington DC, carjackings in 2021 were up by a third over 2019, while in nearby Alexandria a motorist made national news after he shot two boys at a gas station who were trying to lift his car. In Chicago, 1,900 vehicles were jacked just last year, which is eye-wateringly high even by that city’s grim standards. There is an inhumanity at work in this country that’s as stark as anything I’ve seen in

Boris Johnson’s guilt

An ability to survive narrow scrapes has been one of Boris Johnson’s defining qualities. The pictures of Downing Street’s lockdown social events included in the Sue Gray report were so dull as to be almost exculpatory: staid gatherings of half a dozen people around a long table with sandwiches still in their boxes, apple juice poured into a whisky glass. Far worse happened in No. 10 but Gray did not publish those photos or look into (for example) the ‘Abba’ party in the No. 10 flat, saying she felt it inappropriate to do so while police were investigating. Luckily for Johnson. The more damaging material came from the emails intercepted, with No. 10 staff being clear