Monti’s letter to Johnson… and calling last orders on our pubs…

THE other day Boris Johnson tweeted a letter from a boy called Monti asking whether Father Christmas would be able to make it this year. Suspicions arose that Monti was an invention. Had an eight-year-old really written this politically convenient note?

Turns out Monti is real and comes from Cockermouth. This news kicks the shins of any passing cynic. I’ve just given mine a consoling rub.

Johnson told Monti that he’d called the North Pole and Father Christmas was “ready and raring to go”. Santa talks just like Boris Johnson, which is alarming.

The holly-prickled business of Christmas this year is down to Johnson not wanting to be seen as the prime minister who cancelled Christmas. Instead, he is the Tousled Tinsel Toff Who Made Christmas So Complicated Nobody Knew What To Make Of It.

As the second lockdown ends next week, we return to the tiers system. And that seems to continue the lockdown by calling it something else.

Anecdotal evidence suggests many people are going to stick to the small-scale Christmas they’d already planned before Johnson plonked his Santa’s sack of poorly wrapped presents before us.

New scraps of advice keep blowing through the door, like soggy autumn leaves. Don’t hug granny to death, eat your dinner in the garden, sleep in the shed; it’s possible I wasn’t giving those warnings my fullest attention.

But I have concentrated on what’s happening to our pubs, and it’s not good. Do you think any of the people making these decisions have ever been inside one? I’m beginning to suspect not.

Pubs were told to take certain safety measures, and that’s exactly what they did. They showed that they could operate in this constricted new world, and their reward was to be shut again – or face ridiculous rules about having to serve “substantial meals” with drinks.

What is a substantial meal, aside from something Boris Johnson appears to have indulged in more than once? Still, at least we’ve discovered that Covid-19 is scared of pie and chips or a good pork pie. Whereas to swallow an unaccompanied pint is to dice with death.

The chef and pub owner Tom Kerridge has just finished a BBC2 series that was starkly sobering for something about pubs. His brief was to explain the many difficulties and inequities of the job. He visited pubs around the country, where pub owners sat before him in tears. And that was pre-Covid-19.

The final programme chimed with the end of the first lockdown. All the pubs, having peered into the cellar of despair, had managed to reinvent themselves. Everything seemed almost optimistic, except that now it’s all happening again.

Early in the crisis that never ends, the government said it was following the science, and that always sounded like a ruse to eventually blame the scientists. Anyway, with pubs they seem to have followed their nose to scrappy bits of science that support their argument for closure or restriction.

The scientific paper backing the policy seems to have been written on the back of a beermat, or possibly the label from a bottle of claret. It’s short and seemingly based on anecdotal evidence trawled from Japan, China, South Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.

Pubs matter and I say that as a once-a-week man at best. Pubs are social centres; pubs are threads running through the fabric of national life.

Yes, tackling the virus is about more than whether we can go to the pub. But this government’s behaviour could see off our pubs. Never mind Boris Johnson wanting to be the man who saved Christmas; at this rate, he’ll be the man who called last orders on Britain’s pubs.

j j j

Should we accept Patel’s apology, Johnson’s over-boiled Christmas pud and that £21m PPE prezzie?

SOMETIMES the word if acts as a hinge. When Home Secretary Priti Patel says she is sorry if her behaviour has upset people, that tips the apology seesaw in the other direction, laying the blame on those who are said to have suffered from the sharp edge of her sweary tongue.

If they are such sensitive flowers as to be upset by her shouting, she’ll just have to apologise through gritted smirk.

Not having been there, none of can say for certain. Even saying it sure fits the look of her doesn’t quite scoop the murk.

Still, as Sir Alex Allan, who led the Cabinet Office inquiry, concluded that Patel had been guilty of “behaviour that can be described as bullying”, perhaps the Home Secretary is not as sweet as she seems. That noise you can hear is the ringing of the heavy irony claxon.

Boris Johnson refuses to accept the report into Patel’s alleged bullying, so Sir Alex has resigned, having, according to The Times, come under pressure to change the tone of what he’d written.

A small detail that says a lot came from a leaked WhatsApp group message in which Johnson urged everyone to “form a square around the Prittster”. Two points grate about this. One, ordering MPs to parrot partisan prattle in defence of Patel is itself a sort of bullying. Two, that matey epithet: what dreadful public schoolboy humour to bestow silly nicknames all around.

Endless forgettable MPs stuck up for Patel, missing the point that how she treats them is irrelevant: it’s how she treats those below her that counts.

The Sun today gives logic a spin and says that the bullied should have “raised their game”. Another pivot, passing the buck to the victim, which is lovely.

And if it’s true as reported that Priti Patel was going around shouting at Civil Service minions because they wouldn’t allow her to be as cruel and unreasonable to migrants as she wished, no one should be surprised.

Sometimes ‘if’ works as a bribe, as in if we all behave we can still have Christmas – although we may have to pay for it by locking-down for all of January.

As has been pointed out by various people, Jewish people have already missed their two holiest holidays of the year, Muslims saw Eid shutdown on the day and Diwali was written off. So why are we expecting the whole country to knuckle down to ‘save Christmas’?

It’s a political game, as shown yesterday by a typical lickspittle headline in the Daily Express: “Boris battles experts to save Christmas.” God, do you think Johnson actually writes those headlines himself?

Casting yourself in the Churchillian mould just to ‘save Christmas’ is an over-boiled pudding of a policy. Like many others, I love seeing friends and family at Christmas, but we’ve all been ground down to accepting it won’t happen  as usual this year. So why wave the tinsel now?

Better to have a low-key Christmas and escape with January intact.

Sometimes if acts as a sharp reminder, as in if you are not offended by this, what’s the matter with you? I had one of those moments this week on seeing that a Spanish middleman was paid £21m for PPE contracts for the NHS, according to a report by the BBC.

This ties in with the so-called ‘chumocracy’ – what a splendid coining that is – of assorted pals of the government apparently getting special treatment in the queue to earn easy millions by providing PPE.

There’s a story that should be getting higher billing. Remember those vanished taxpayers’ millions next time you see a headline attacking those ‘scroungers’ who depend on the pittance paid by the benefits system.

j j j

Wouldn’t a butcher’s dog be fat rather than fit…?

I see Boris Johnson is again saying that he’s “fit as a butcher’s dog”, this time after being confined to Downing Street. An odd saying to dust off, and one he used as recently as September.

The etymology seems to be that a butcher’s dog would be well fed on scraps of meat, possibly making it fat rather fit.

Johnson seems unlikely to boast that he’s fat as a butcher’s dog, although he could have laid claim to the fitness levels of a fiddler. According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase& Fable, street fiddlers were thought to be fit because they moved around so much. It is not known whether Downing Street fiddlers move around that much, should such a fanciful figure ever slip past the eyes of the libel lawyers.

Johnson is much burdened by metaphors, as if he carried around a sack to hand them out like a crummy Santa.  Last week he said science had given the world two big boxing gloves to “pummel” coronavirus, but warned that a vaccine alone was not a “knockout punch”. Metaphors can be tempting, but really it’s a tiresome habit. Is that how he thinks ordinary people speak?

Should you not be keeping up, Johnson is self-isolating in Downing Street following a meeting last week with Tory MPs. Now six of those MPs, two political aides and Johnson are all in isolation.

From the short film clip the prime minister put out, he might be said to look as scruffy as the baker’s old mongrel, what with his hair being all over the place as usual. But Johnson boomingly reassured us he was “full of beans”, “hitting on all cylinders” and “bursting with antibodies”.

The prime minster said others should “follow the rules” if contacted by the system. Well, yes – but perhaps they should follow the lockdown rules before that happens.

All this mask-wearing and keeping your distance isn’t always easy, I know, but was it really necessary for those MPs to meet in Downing Street within, well, spitting distance of each other? Many of us live by Zoom, Google Meet or Teams these days, our work and even our social lives compressed into a low ceiling within a small screen. Was meeting Boris Johnson in person really that important?

The first of the visiting MPs to be mentioned was Lee Anderson, who later tested positive for Covid-19, causing Johnson to be shut up inside Number 10 in the latest twist in the Westminster soap.

Thanks to Martin Belham of the Guardian for pointing me to Mr Anderson’s website, where the MP hosts an eccentric “Best of British” quiz.

Here are some of the questions:

Do you think schools should fly the union flag?

Do our children know enough about our history and heritage?

Do you feel proud to be British?

Are you fed up with the media fuelled criticism of our country and the Woke Agenda?

And, lastly, are you now wondering why on earth you wasted a vote on me at the last election?

The words in one of those questions might not be 100% true as reading that list made my eyes go funny.

Mr Anderson is said to have lost his sense of taste after meeting Boris Johnson. Based on his jibe about the “woke agenda”, it’s possible he lost it before that.

Let’s hope he recovers well enough to lay claim to that butcher’s dog.

j j j

The leaving of the Leaver…

The Reuters photograph that was used everywhere…

Trump and Brexit barged through the same door, a pair of right-wing loudmouths intent on kicking liberal shins. Now one is being shown the exit, and the architect of the second was yesterday ordered to leave Downing Street.

Some say the departing Dominic Cummings is an evil political genius, but perhaps he is just a bully who got lucky by reading how the wind was blowing. He was doubly fortunate a year ago in his man being up against Jeremy Corbyn. Johnson would almost certainly have won, whoever had been pulling his strings.

It is reasonable to admit that Cummings is a smart coiner of the cynical political phrase – Take Back Control and Get Brexit Done being his two bestsellers. But shouldn’t there be more to politics than stringing together three conning words?

Various stories swirling around the Westminster drain today suggest different versions of the Cummings departure. You can take your pick, really. Did Boris Johnson get tough, giving his chief adviser a rigorous talking to before ordering him to leave? Or was it a friendlier encounter, a bit of political improv theatre to make the prime minister look strong?

Whichever version you prefer, the leaving of the arch Leaver was perfectly staged. That Reuters photograph of Cummings stalking through the festively lit front door carrying a cardboard box showed a man with more theatrical slap about him than a pantomime dame.

Earlier in the week, I joined in with those tweeting that no ordinary person should give a tired toot about the stormy departure of Lee Cain, the macho ardent Brexiteer who acted as Johnson’s director of communications.

A reasonable view to have on the day, but the further unravelling of the Downing Street y-fronts does suggest there was more to this story. In a little under a year, Johnson’s Downing Street operation was cocking things up endlessly, causing dismay among his own party, and earning a reputation for big-shouldered macho ineptitude.

But was Cummings the problem or was it Johnson himself? Johnson is the captain of this aimless ship, so he can’t escape blame for… oh, take your pick from the chaos tin of assortments, but do watch out for the Brexit Nut Cluster as there’s a terribly hard centre in that one.

Remember, too, that Johnson let Cummings become the dominant story of the past six months by refusing to sack him after that lockdown-breaking jaunt to Barnard Castle. Why such stubbornness when a short while later he’s prepared to send Cummings out of the front door? Incidentally, other Downing Street doors are available, so by choosing the front door Cummings continued to make himself the story while pretending not to, as usual.

It’s not always profitable to link one damn thing to another, although it can be irresistible. The Trump Thing and the Brexit Thing are, I’d suggest, conjoined by the manner of their arrival. Trump rose on a barrage of lies and self-made urban myths, much as Johnson started out years ago inventing urban myths about Europe for the Daily Telegraph.

The Trump Thing and the Brexit Thing depended on bullying people into the belief that this would be good for them. Both exploited a general feeling that life could be different.

Then there is the snake oil. Trump is what they used to called a snake oil salesman. The Vote Leave team fronted by Dominic Cummings slapped a snake-oil slogan on the side of a bus to convince people that the NHS would be £350m a week better off if we left the EU.

If a lie wins the day, what’s the point of trundling out the truth?

It’s comforting to think there must once have been a time when politicians won through the strength of their argument, rather than by being exploitative bullies.

Perhaps such a bright day never dawned. Still, the world feels more cheerful with the departure of Trump and the leaving of Cummings. At least my liberal shins will have a chance to heal at last.

j j j

Scylla and Charybdis? Boris Johnson’s head needs an Eton declutter…

IT’S hard to draw your eyes from the US. Such long drama, such giddy hope. All that and Donald Trump throwing a mega-tantrum, a three-year-old trapped in the curiously bequiffed head of an angry old man.

Until we know for sure, I’m going to leave him to it, content instead to savour something Philadelphia’s mayor Jim Kenney said yesterday…

“What the president needs to do, frankly, is put his big boy pants on. He needs to acknowledge that he lost. And he needs to congratulate the winner.”

Isn’t that just perfect?

For now, I want to wind back to something Boris Johnson said as long ago as the week before last, an aeon in today’s Trump-trashed, corona-chaos-propelled world, I know.

In a message about public health, Johnson said: “It’s like sailing between Scylla and Charybdis.”

This caused Geri Scott, Westminster Correspondent for the Yorkshire Post, to tweet: “Maybe I’m exposing my own clearly inferior education but surely normal people have no idea what he’s going on about when he says this stuff, right?”

You are quite right, Geri. Normal people don’t know this stuff at all. Having studied English literature two-and-half aeons ago, I know a smidgen, so count as half-normal. Reading Ulysses by James Joyce is to blame for that. Joyce’s Dublin retelling of Homer’s epic features Scylla and Charybdis somewhere. As too, incidentally, does the Cohen Brothers’ film Brother Where Are Thou?

The short version is that in Homer, Odysseus and his crew have to sail between Scylla, a monster who lives on rocks, and Charybdis, a ship-sinking whirlpool. An updated stand-in might be “between a rock and a hard place”, a modern American expression with a bit of old biblical ink splashed over.

Fittingly enough, Johnson later announced that he would be making a speech from the Downing Street rock. The expectant crowd gathered and waited. And waited even longer. Eventually, Johnson clambered up that rock and announced the lockdown, by which time everyone was cold and even more disenchanted than before.

As for the hard place, for my money that’s the Home Office, where Priti Patel climbs up high to shout abuse at migrants.

So don’t worry, Geri. Boris Johnson’s supposedly superior education doesn’t seem to have equipped him well for the practicalities of life. And he should stop scattering Latin and Greek myths all over the place.

Yet I do have sympathy. For inside my Eng-Lit skull are to be found old literary fragments. “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” from Shakespeare’s Richard II. “Water, water everywhere; Nor any drop to drink” from Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner (and please note that nor any).

TS Eliot in The Waste Land referring to April as “the cruellest month” (my wife disagrees, her birthday falls then). Or Eliot again, with Prufrock wearing the bottoms of his trousers rolled.

Or Andrew Marvell worrying that at his back he hears “time’s winged chariot hurrying near”. Oh, and that lovely Gerard Manley Hopkins line: “I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin…”

All this and more rests in the mental dust.

So, yes, many of us have fragments of this and that in the attic, but mostly we leave them up there. As for dragging poor old Scylla and Charybdis into a public health announcement, that suggests a man who should book his head in for a serious Eton declutter.

j j j

It’s time we rationed these dull old stories about the past…

SOCIAL media loves nostalgia. Sometimes it is stirred into a boiled pudding with the wooden spoon of sweet regret. Sometimes it is hardened into a pointed stick. We’ve seen both sorts of reminiscence these past few days.

An unkind seam of sentimentality was uncovered after the footballer Marcus Rashford relaunched his free schools meals campaign. You couldn’t move on social media without falling over meals once eaten by people’s grandparents.

A typical example pictured a list of wartime food rations and the words: “My Nana lived through the war and raised 4 children to be healthy adults on these rations.”

Others said oats were cheap, let them eat porridge. One racist charmer clattered down his dinner plate containing a meal from the fag-end of a beef joint, saying we didn’t need “lectures about poverty from black footballers”. A Tory MP, rushing to join the saying stupid things queue outside the store of unrationed memories, wondered why poor parents didn’t just shop at M&S.

The wartime post was typical in suggesting that life was much tougher in the past, so get over it. It was also misleading, as assorted people complained. The historian Dr Charlotte Lydia Riley pointed out that the list of rations did not appear to be genuine, and the portion sizes were off.

She tweeted: “I don’t need to try to rebut this stuff every time but I teach WW2 a lot and man, it’s so tedious seeing it wheeled out like this over and over again.”

These ration stories are worthless, as poverty in the past has no relevance to poverty now. The comparison should be made with what people have today, and banging on about the past brings nothing relevant to the table.

Anyway, other countries had things much tougher. In the Ukraine, starving peasants were said to have dug up dead horses. There’s probably a Ukrainian tweet somewhere right now saying: “My grandmother brought up eight children on rancid horseflesh and it did them no harm.”

The history of rationing is fascinating, but shouldn’t be dusted off and used to berate people today.

Incidentally, a quick Google reveals that you can buy T-shirts with that suspect list of rations splashed across the chest. Tasteless and not true, but there’s money to be made.

Social media is full of old news dusted with the icing sugar of nostalgia. Newspapers love this stuff too, with some nowadays containing more memories than news.

Here’s a striking example of media weakness for nostalgia. Last week leading news outlets including the Mail Online and the Daily Mirror said Woolworths was re-opening. As Jim Waterson of the Guardian reported, this story was set rolling by a 17-year-old sixth-form student from York. It was “based on nothing more than a typo-strewn Twitter account with fewer than 1,000 followers”.

Waterson, who grew up in York, said the unnamed sixth-former had been practising skills learned while taking an A-level course in digital marketing. That lad deserves top marks. He accidentally showed that if you mix a weakness for wallowing in the mundane past with media laziness, a myth can be born without a fact being checked.

These days I no longer feel so nostalgic about nostalgia.

j j j

If this is virtue signalling, you can count me in…

Marcus Rashford, Man United footballer, man of the moment and the nation’s social conscience, has managed all of that by the age of 22.

Assorted Tory MPs two or three times his age have been making dreadful blue arses of themselves while explaining why they voted against extending free school meals for children into the half-term holiday for children in England.

After Rashford campaigned on this for the summer holidays, the government refused to listen, then executed one of those integrity-burning U-turns they keep doing.

At the time of typing, Boris Johnson and Co are refusing to change their minds this time. Five Tory MPs backed the Labour motion, so they are not quite all dreadful blue arses.

The government argues it has put more money into universal credit, while also sending £63m to local councils to help people in hardship.

I put those reported facts out there in fairness. Now let’s have a fool’s auction of Tory MPs huffing and bluffing about how families should feed children, not the state.

Who’ll give me what for Robert Goodwill, MP for Scarborough and Whitby, who reportedly claims many parents kept their children out of school during lockdown to they could have supermarket vouchers instead.

Or what about Mansfield MP Ben Bradley, who tweeted his opposition to Rashford’s free school meals campaign, implying that in his constituency the money would be spent on drugs instead. Bradley then spent even longer blaming that old villain Con Text, claiming that he absolutely did not say what everyone thought he said.

Government blather-person Kit Malthouse went on the radio in his role as the Minister For Whatever the Government’s Just Put Its Foot In. He has a proper title which you are free to look up. Anyway, blather, blather, you don’t understand at all, he said. Or something like that.

I think my favourite must be the Shipley MP Philip Davies, always a strong contender in any he-said-what? contest. Mr Davies criticised a constituent who got in touch to complain about Tory MPs voting against free school meals in half-term.

She pointed out to her MP: “Almost 20,000 children in Bradford require free school meals, the city in which you live, the place with constituents you are meant to be working for, and today you voted so they’d go hungry over the holidays.”

Delightfully, Davies accused her of virtual-signalling, adding: “I take the rather old fashioned view that parents should be primarily responsible for feeding their children rather than the state.”

What he didn’t know was that his constituent was a 16-year-old sixth-former. When told of her identity and age, he remained unabashed, as usual.

Incidentally, Davies has for a partner the fellow right-winger Esther McVey. How delightful. I wonder if together they might breed attack puppies, training them to nip the ankles of anyone who signals virtue. Nothing much is surprising any more, although I did just make that up (I think).

In 2017/18, the independent Social Metrics Commission calculated that there were 4.8m children living in poverty in the UK. That is a dreadful indictment of this country, whoever is in power. Or if you are Paul Scully, the Minister for Something or Other – I just looked, he’s Minister for London (lucky London) – childhood poverty is just a Big Shrug Emoji.

In a BBC interview, Scully said “children have been going hungry for years”, blaming Labour governments too. “It’s their fault too” isn’t much of a defence – especially when what you’ve said sounds as if children living in poverty is just one of those things.

Let’s brush aside those shabby MPs and wind up with the words of Marcus Rashford, who is using his fame and his own childhood poverty to do good.

And they are fine words…

“These children matter. These children are the future of this country. They are not just another statistic. And for as long as they don’t have a voice, they will have mine.”

j j j

The strange snubbing of Dr Sentamu and a Lordly U-turn…

EVEN a man without faith who surveys the world from an imaginary ledge can see that denying Dr John Sentamu a seat in the House of Lords would be unfair.

That apparent snub was reported by the Sunday Times, and then went through the U-bend of government decision making to come out facing the other way round. As so many decisions do.

There are a few aspects to this latest Downing Street whoopsie-dozy, not least whether church leaders should be in the Upper House at all. But leading clerics do sit in the Lords, so stopping the progress of the widely admired former Archbishop of York would have been petty.

Was there a current of racism in blocking Dr Sentamu? Probably not exactly, but it could be seen that way – especially as Dr Sentamu has never been afraid to speak his mind about social issues.

The argument for blocking the admirable doctor was that the House of Lords was full. What outrageously floppy flapdoodle. Boris Johnson has just ennobled a ragbag of Brexit supporters, along with his own brother – 36 new peers, the second-highest number of new peers for 20 years. That’s 36 times £300 a day, plus expenses.

If the place is chocker, that’s why.

Today’s Daily Mail kicked off with a different clerical clash, saying that the prime minister is “set for war” with the five Anglican Church leaders. This is because they wrote a joint letter warning that the government’s Brexit legislation could set a “dangerous precedent” if passed in its current form.

In a comment piece, the Mail asks “what on earth” this has to do with the Church, suggesting clerics should stand for election if they want to dabble in politics.

It’s a point – and one sometimes muttered in the corner of this ledge. But if assorted prime ministerial pals can be shoved into the Lords as part of the chumocracy, without a vote but a flexible flick of the back-scratcher, it’s hard to see that the archbishops shouldn’t deliver the occasional unflattering political sermon.

When the clerics agree with governments, minister say how much they appreciate the heavenly good sense; when the clerics turn turbulent, they shout disgrace.

While the House of Lords is constructed as it is, knocked together from glittered scraps of history and shabbily bestowed privilege, I can’t see a problem with archbishops having their say.

It would be better to have an elected second chamber, rather than one packed with the chums of assorted prime ministers. Until that happens, which it won’t ever, let the archbishops speak. And let Dr John Sentamu speak. He won over many in Yorkshire during his spell as archbishop. Even a man without faith who surveys the world from an imaginary ledge will happily admit that.

 

j j j

A short stumble from Savile Row to the Oxfam shop… the art of political photography

I KNOW a few underemployed photographers. Perhaps they will be interested to learn that the Cabinet office has a job at around sixty grand a year.

An initial misreading of this story left me thinking Boris Johnson wanted a photographer to take more flattering photos.

He usually looks shiftily dishevelled in news photographs. Most men are smart in a suit even if they’d rather not wear one. Johnson contrives to be untidy in suits that never fit, bunching up in the wrong places, the trousers too long (or the legs too short; an affliction I share), the jacket buttons awkwardly skew-whiff.

A short stumble from Savile Row to the Oxfam shop.

Photographs of political leaders can themselves be political. Not so much in the shooting as in how they are used. A news photographer will fire off in rapid succession, hoping to catch the moment, combining their skill with a sixth sense for what might be about to happen.

Which photograph to use is then an artistic choice or a judgment about how the photograph fits the story. Or the decision will itself be political, as pictures can make a leader look good or bad, flattery or insult delivered by the same lens, seconds apart.

That’s what I thought was happening here, Johnson wanting someone to do a bit of brown-nosing with a camera. But I’d forgotten he already has a personal photographer in the shape of Andrew Parsons.

It’s surely a vanity project for a PM to employ his own photographer. It’s also pointless, unless he wishes to ban all other photographers.

Such a decree seems unlikely, although in truth it would no longer tick the box marked: “Well, I wasn’t expecting to discover that.”

Especially when you consider that Boris Johnson has just appointed his own press spokesman, the job going to the political journalist Allegra Stratton at a reported £100,000 a year.

A lot of taxpayers’ money for a spokeswoman to understudy the prime minister. Why can’t Boris Johnson just speak for himself? At a guess the foot-in-mouth potential explains that one.

Anyway, the Cabinet Office photographer is reportedly being hired to “promote the work of ministers and the wider government visually”.

If the photographer is too controlled, this risks being  another political vanity project. If they are allowed to photograph whatever they want however they want, the results could be interesting. But how likely is such freedom?

It is interesting how leaders worry about their image. All those photographs of Johnson looking dishevelled and knackered are not flattering. But they tell the story. They flatter not him but the moment – far more than a stage-managed shot of the Bumbler in Chief pretending to be statesmanlike. The strain is part of the story.

In the US, photographer Pete Sousa worked with the Republican Ronald Reagan and the Democrat Barack Obama. He expresses horror at the tawdry soap opera of Donald Trump’s White House. Interestingly, he also claims photographs of Trump working in hospital after testing positive for Covid-19 were “obviously posed pictures”.

Souza says that in one designed to show the President working hard while ill, he appears to be signing a blank sheet of paper. The photographer who took that was contriving in a lie as plain as the orange tint on Trump’s face.

Then again, Trump reportedly claimed $70,000 a year on hairstyling in his tax-avoidance wheeze. Even a reluctant baldie can see that’s quite a spend for hair seemingly spun from a bag of spilt sugar.

j j j

All points north… unless you’re sitting in Downing Street…

JUST where the north might be is a debate waiting to be joined by a Bristolian Mancunian from York via South East London.

My claim to be a northerner is one of geographical accident rather than legacy or lineage. But I have spent more time in the north than anywhere else. I even own a flap cap, although it is a Peaky Blinders-style baker boy cap, rather than a proper flat cap.

Hardened types from further north probably regard York as being virtually in the south. Such regionality even breaks down to parts of Yorkshire. One of the sub-editors at the Yorkshire Post, who I know, sent me an email regarding a feature I’d written about a furnituremaker of Husthwaite. He said it was a “lovely read (if a bit North-non-proper-Yorkshire)”.

I’m guessing West or South counts as more ‘proper’.

In a wider sense, the north is just that bit up there, you know, beyond the pale and too far away to notice properly. Or that’s the impression lately, especially when newspapers are tipped off about new government lockdowns or restrictions, saying that they will be happening “in the north”.

Perhaps we northerners (and fake northerners) can be picky, but narrowing that down a bit might help. The north is a wide geographical canvas made up of regions, cities, towns and villages. The people living in those places might like to know if this affects them.

Then again, Boris Johnson’s government doesn’t seem in a hurry to keep local politicians and council leaders in the know. Regional leaders from little-known corners of the north – you know, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds – say they aren’t kept in touch at all. The first many knew about the looming new restrictions was when they saw those geographically unhelpful headlines.

As Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, said on Question Time last night: “It does feel increasingly to people that we’re being treated with contempt in the North of England.”

The latest restrictions will see the forced temporary closure of pubs, bars and restaurants in coronavirus hotspots. Maybe this is sensible (doubts are permitted), but shouldn’t local politicians and local people be involved in the process, rather than receiving distant diktats from London?

On Twitter, the editor of the Yorkshire Post, James Mitchinson, said that we need to “confront the London mindset and embed a culture of national inclusion”.

In August in that newspaper, the veteran columnist Bernard Ingham, a man with whom it is almost impossible to agree, said something sensible when he described the government’s new post of Downing Street press secretary as a “constitutional outrage” designed to side-step Parliament.

You can see why the newly announced appointment of Allegra Stratton in that role appeals to Boris Johnson. It’s flashy and American-style and stops him having to address Parliament so often.

Bernard Ingham was once the thunderously displeased press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, so he should be listened to on this matter, if not others. Oddly, both Ingham and Stratton once worked for the Guardian.

Despite her spell on the Guardian, Allegra Stratton is well connected in Tory circles, being married to James Forsyth, political editor of the Spectator.

Still, having once worked on the Guardian, at least there’s a chance she may locate the north on a map.

As for this Bristolian Mancunian from York via South East London, I love the north and wouldn’t live anywhere else.

j j j