Off with his head: lockdown smoke, mirrors & peonies
I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece The Mirror & the Light. It’s the final book in her extraordinary and breathtaking trilogy about the life and times of Thomas Cromwell. The trilogy follows Cromwell’s rise from battered son of a Putney smithy to chief policy-maker, deal-broker and pieces-picker-upper of Henry VIII. Cromwell is a commoner who stepped from nowhere to become the most powerful man in the country. But the lack of a landed and lauded family, and paucity of dynasty and ancient connections would always see the hand he fed and protected destroying him. And that’s where I’m headed with this superb book: no amount of wit, guile and usefulness will be enough to hold fast against the old boy network of the lords and ladies of court and country, or Cromwell’s greatest fan and biggest threat – the mercurial monarch.
This week has been a tough one. I don’t like being angry – I often feel that being angry is a failure. It’s the petulant child in me being allowed to be unreasonable and stampy-footed. However, straight up anger is what I feel about Dominic Cummings flouting the lockdown rules and refusing to apologise and resign. I can appreciate the social media memes: the ironic ‘should have gone to Specsavers’ Barnard Castle jokes, and the amusing asides that stem from someone behaving stupidly and then reinventing history to support their own idiocy. But, we have been duped and I believe anger is the right response.
In manoeuvres that out-Trump Trump, we’ve seen journalists slapped down, ignored and, in the BBC’s Emily Maitlis’ case rebuked (if you’re not familiar with the story, you’ll find info on it here). What have these journalists done? Probed MPs on a controversial topic and expressed the shock and disappointment many (most of us?) feel. Isn’t that their job?
There’s a reason that Johnson, Gove et al look shifty and uncomfortable when they attempt to justify and gloss over Cummings’ and his wife’s breaking of the lockdown rules: it’s because there genuinely is no justification. The rest of us – the population of the UK – was urged to abide by rules which would safeguard us, other people and the NHS. Even though many would (and have) suffer(ed) great hardship. Meanwhile, in the thick of it all, an elite member of the rule-makers flouted the rules and his colleagues are closing ranks to protect their own: however ludicrous it makes them look. And, quite honestly, they may well get away with it.
If Hilary Mantel were writing the story of this historical carry-on, it would be packed with complex and nuanced characters, with layers of compelling meaning and insight rippling through each sentence. Mantel would uncover basic human motivations as well as the Machiavellian machinations of those driven by power. And the old boy network would come out triumphant in the end.
So, because I don’t know what else to do this week, other than rant and feel let down and angry and sign Change.org petitions, I’m going to share pictures of my peony. I’ve been taking photos almost daily of its progress from tiny bud to full-blown bloom. It’s been a steadying pastime.
And at least I can chop off its head when it’s past its best.