Our correspondent, Flann O’Brien, brings us the news and views from Westminster, but no change from a twenty – it’s Dominic Cummings’ round.
At 7:48pm last Thursday I heard from one enterprising Whitehall mandarin – his name shall not cross these lips – who bent my ear to a cunning devisement. His paws – previously delicate, fresh and unblemished from any plough-share rougher than a planning application – were beginning to show signs of ill-wear due to the ritual of applauding medicos each Thursday evening, and he feared each clap risked producing a confetti burst of dead skin, pluming from pruned palms in clouds of vaporous beige. Had he considered, I asked, that it was more likely the constant application of sanitiser, frequent scrubbing with soaped water, and use of latex gloves that had left him with the mitts of a Victorian whaler? He lisped that the other things were essential, whereas his weekly ovation was more in the symbolic line of things. He told me he had circumvented the problem with just the analeptic for his condition, and given it was shared by a great many daintily-gloved sorts like himself, he was now hoping to roll out for all such sufferers.
He calls it Backhandr, an app which matches you to key workers – deliverymen, shopkeepers, precariously employed subeditors for local newspapers etc – of similar height and appearance to yourself, who will sojourn to your threshold just before eight o’clock, don a suit (you provide), and a suitably obscuring face mask (model’s own). At the turn of the hour, they clap loudly on your doorstep in your place, preserving your palms, and your reputation into the bargain. For an extra florin they will bang a pan, and for a few more florins-by-the-minute, will see them keep going until everyone else stops. This worked uncannily well for the first two weeks, but came unstuck in the third, when the app’s popularity resulted in a quintet of quarantined quango-attenders availing of its services while residing in adjacent houses. There followed a clamorous Mexican clap-off which didn’t subside until four o’clock the following afternoon, by which time noise complaints had been lodged and three of the key workers, demented by exhaustion but greatly enriched by the aggregation of their fees, were admitted to hospital for skin grafts. A bad hand, all round.
Pray, have you found yourself inundated with videocalls from family distant and friends of old, spontaneously gripped with an ungovernable mania for communication? Well, tell anyone you heard it from me and I’ll blacken your mother’s name, but this is precisely where I found myself last week. I was Skyping a highly-connected political acquaintance – discretion insists that I name him only as a Mr Cummings – when I noted he was in a torrid flux. ‘Dom,’ I cried, ‘what’s the matter, bedad?’. Through thick tears he made it known that he was due to perform as many as eight transmissions from his home that very evening, to various intra-governmental bodies, and to people who were dodging his physical presence on account of his antipathy to the elderly and/or laissez-faire approach to letting them die by the thousands. Forced to conduct himself through a lens, he was struggling to populate the bookshelf that would stand behind him in the upstairs bedroom from which he was now, sotto voce, crying down the wire. He had left all his most impressive books at his second home – some small castle or other – and had little more in his London abode than well-thumbed favourites and passing fancies. In a flurry of indecision, two dozen such titles had been haphazardly stacked to his rear, and without wishing to christen oneself a stiff-necked snoot, they made an abject spectacle. Anyone attempting to intuit the man from his library would not hesitate to class him a maniac of the first water; six books on the white wines of Cumbria, a tattered almanac of netball scores, three novels set in the Halo universe, and the 2004 Top Gear Annual. ‘Say nothing!’ said I, hitting on just the solution by sending a Backhandr round that very moment with eighteen copies of Ivor Novello: A Biography by James Harding, inarguably the best of its genre.
This proved so successful for said acquaintance that he was in my debt for the following week, and made this known over a series of arduous Skype calls in which he settled these arrears by doling out scoops from the vacant and freshly sanitised corridors of power. So pleased was he with this new avenue of hearsay and slander, his calls soon became nightly, and then hourly events, by which time the sluice of gossip had dried and they took an altogether otherwise turn. Again, were you to name me as your informant in this matter, I would drop all business to relieve your father of his back teeth, but from this point forward my interminable transmitter was reduced to expounding on his philosophy of political gamesmanship, via a series of one-on-one calls he was now calling ‘disruptcasts’, and for which I was, unhappily, his sole audience.
Politics was, he assured me, like chess but also like Russian literature and, infrequently but not insignificantly, attached to models of social and moral reality that intersect according to principles first laid down by Sun Tzu. Here, I could see, was a man who couldn’t look at a political modality anyway but side-wise. As a plain man of Ireland – strong-hearted, keen-eyed but habitually given to accepting the commonplace way of things – I had, in that shallow ignorance that passes for discernment in the Hibernian heart, previously thought the man’s chief insight was [a glance now at my notes to convey the thing clearly] ‘lying wins elections’. Close study of his operations had thus far given me no indication that such knowledge required a keen reading of Russian literature, or an ungovernable zeal for Wu Dynasty military history, yet here I was being dissuaded of this conception, and several times a day.
Perhaps I should have known. Search the foreword of any copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War in the parliamentary library, and you are plighted to discover the outstretched digit of some well-connected Whitehall disruptee, their body apt to clatter floorways should you shake its pages hard enough. For all the many and various benefits it has provided to political insight, not to mention nuggets of wisdom for mid-90s rap albums, I had imbibed that volume in my youth, which meant I didn’t see much point in dipping back into that particular well of sentiments, no matter the well-intent meant. After three days of near-constant broadcasts, I begged him thanks and told him I was cutting down on screen time to help the national grid. Aghast, he fretted with his head-microphone, and assured me he had more to give, were anyone to listen. Red-faced, he promised more scandal. Spitting, he alluded to hidden stores of scuttlebutt and spite. Finally, weeping, he offered a thorough-going index of precisely how many pensioners he felt were currently surplus to the nation’s requirements, with names and addresses forthcoming. ‘Sorry,’ I consoled, ‘but I must decline. For does not dearest Sun-Tzi affirm himself; he will win who knows when to Skype and when not to Skype’.
As told to Séamas O’Reilly.