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Helen's Christmas missive
As promised on Twitter earlier in December, here’s my substack-only Christmas missive.
Later on in the post, I’ll do a bit of a highlights reel of pieces published this year, but for the moment I’ll make a few comments about 2021, otherwise known as “the shit boring year”. Following on, of course, from 2020, which turned into a shit boring year even though it didn’t start that way.
Everyone has a covid violin to play, but I admit mine is a tiny one: I didn’t travel anywhere. A planned “sunny holiday” in the classic British sense was scuppered when Israel closed its borders, which means the furthest afield I’ve gone this year is…Plymouth. I’m supposed to be heading to the US in April-May next year for a conference, but am very much operating on “wait and see” terms. I don’t trust governments in any country or of any stripe to respond to covid-19 with anything other than cack-handed incompetence.
Relatedly, locking humans in their houses and forcing them to maintain social and work relationships using social media is productive of brain-rot, which then feeds into our increasingly bonkers politics.
I think we know definitively, now, that arguing on social media changes no minds and improves no manners. What social media does do is polarise. Whatever beliefs one brings to it are reinforced and sometimes embroidered. Healthy suspicion of government diktats curdles into vaccine conspiracies. A strong commitment to complying with health ordinances ferments into public confrontation of those not wearing masks.
The “windscreen effect”—where you flip the bird at other drivers when cut up in traffic in ways you would never do if someone stepped in front of you on the footpath—provides an illusion of impregnability. This, as much as anything, is why people are still shocked when someone “takes it offline” and camps outside a celebrity’s home (think J.K. Rowling) or mobs a politician when he’s walking down the street.
Relatedly, ordinary members of the public see journalists engage in this sort of behaviour (think the press posse outside Jeremy Corbyn’s or Dominic Cummings’ houses) and believe they can do likewise. And, to be fair, the law on point is blurry. In the former case, it became clear that Corbyn is not a morning person and this trait could be played for laughs. Media people were hanging around purely so they could get a pic of Captain Grumpy when he was walking down the street to pick up his paper and a pint of milk.
So, for me, getting out from under covid restrictions is important not only in economic terms but social ones. Human beings evolved to see each other’s faces and social media shows what happens when that stops happening and everyone starts arguing (while thinking they’re impregnable).
Professionally, confining the population to barracks made life easier for people like me (something that isn’t acknowledged enough among the commentariat). I’ve done a year’s worth of weekly radio spots and quite a lot of telly without having to leave my house.
My one telly studio trip (two weeks ago, to London) reminded me why I’ve always hated doing them. While congratulating myself on avoiding covid, I was felled by what the British press has taken to calling “the super cold.” It’s not flu, or as bad as flu (no aches and pains, no fever) but it’s a near thing. I’ve spent more than a week disturbing my partner with seal-like barks and groans and even resorted to pseudoephedrine to get copy finished before Christmas.
The added profile (something that carried over from 2020, to be fair) led to more commissions and my decision (taken in January this year) to accept a columnist role at Law & Liberty. A legally-focussed magazine publishing literary non-fiction and criticism, Law & Liberty is owned by Liberty Fund, a storied and fabulously wealthy American think-tank.
I’ve avoided columns in the past on the basis that I’m incapable of “cranking the handle” every week or fortnight. The longest I’ve lasted writing conventional opinion pieces in that way is six months. I made an exception for Law & Liberty because it’s only once a month, with occasional omissions and additions (I missed April, and wrote two pieces in December). A month gives me enough time to think an issue through or read a book, investigate, and report back.
Literary non-fiction does, however, scratch the same itch as fiction. While the pay-cheque eases the pain, writing for Law & Liberty is holding up my fourth novel. Sorry about that.
In terms of favourite pieces, I was pleased with this review of Stuart Ritchie’s Science Fictions, this piece on Ovid, a pornographic (but very funny) Roman writer, and this feature on the extraordinary moment ultra-progressive philosopher Peter Singer found himself piled-on by a woke hate-mob.
Anyway, that’s enough from me. Hope your Christmas is a merry one, your New Year is a happy one, all your presents are great, and that any gatherings (familial and otherwise) are free of rows. I’m off the socials entirely until January 3rd, when I’ll reappear in CapX with a review of Will Storr’s The Status Game.