Fiona Bruce has told the Radio Times she has been surprised by the toxicity of the Question Time debates. So I can only assume she had never watched the programme when she agreed to take over the presenter’s role from David Dimbleby. For some years now – not helped by Brexit which still continues to divide the country no matter how much we are told that now is the time for everyone to come together – Question Time has been a bit of a bear-pit with panels, composed of politicians and professional gobshites, and audiences selected for their capacity to kick lumps out of one another. All of which I am sure is entirely deliberate as it’s the rows that pull in the ratings. QT’s prime aim is to attract viewers and get people mouthing off on Twitter, not stimulate intelligent debate. If anyone ends the hour any better informed, then it’s just an added bonus. A politician not abjectly defending a party line, or a business person or pundit making a nuanced argument are the exception. I’ve never been invited to take part in the programme, but even if I were to be I would turn it down. Partly because I wouldn’t want the stress of being in such a pressured situation – my anxiety levels are bad enough on the occasions I punish myself by watching it on TV – but mainly because there are many topics on which I either don’t have a particularly strong opinion or don’t feel sufficiently well-informed to start sounding off. Somehow, I suspect, the producers would be tearing their hair out at a guest whose main contribution was to say, “It’s complicated” or “I don’t really know”.
On my way in to No 10 for the coronavirus press conference, I was rather surprised to find I was the only journalist keen to take advantage of the hand sanitiser on offer by the door. No one else seemed that bothered, even when I pointed it out to them. I’m guessing this could be a function of age. Most of my colleagues are much younger than me while I, approaching my mid 60s, am in what the Daily Mail rather unkindly called “the Death Zone”. Last week, I rather prematurely wrote about how – as a professional hypochondriac – I wasn’t that bothered about the coronavirus as there many more deadly conditions to worry about. Well, all that’s now changed and I am regularly waking up in the middle of the night after the most disturbing anxiety dreams. Not least because I didn’t find the Downing Street press conference altogether reassuring. While it was refreshing to have the experts back in charge, with the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty – who wouldn’t rather he was prime minister instead of Boris? – and the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, in command of their subject, able to communicate clearly and treating the country as adults, the information they had to share of a possible 80% infection rate and a 1% mortality rate over a six-month period wasn’t what many of us of a certain age were hoping to hear. That’s a possible 600,000 deaths. It’s all rather taken the gloss over this coming weekend’s visit from my son and his girlfriend who are on their way back from holiday. Because I’m now worried he will give me a hug and kill me.
We need to talk about Spurs. The season is currently going from bad to worse, with four defeats – three of them at home – on the bounce. Nor is it obvious if the team is capable of improvement. The FA Cup loss to Norwich marked a new low as no one would easily have identified any of the Spurs’ players as professional footballers. The match ended in a penalty shoot out in which Tottenham contrived to take three of the worst spot kicks ever seen anywhere. The last one was a collector’s item. A gentle pass to the opposition keeper that would have struggled to get over the line. Bizarrely, at the end of the game, the manager, José Mourinho, spoke of how brilliant the team had been. In which case, I’d hate to seem them when they were a bit rubbish. I’ve had many low points with Spurs over the years – part of their attraction is their commitment to letting you down – but I haven’t felt this way about them since the late 90s. I am beyond despair and into indifference. I was surprised to find that I genuinely was neither that surprised at nor that bothered by losing to Norwich. And I’m far from alone. Sometimes boos can be heard after a bad defeat: the only reaction amongst fans near me when the last penalty was missed was laughter. Spurs have somehow contrived to build one of the best new stadiums in the country, yet simultaneously destroy both the atmosphere in the ground and one of the best teams I’ve watched in years. As so often at Tottenham, money is the thing that talks loudest and the club knows there are suckers like me who can be relied on to renew our season tickets – prices inevitably going up, as the football gets worse – just because we always have. The only way my friend Matthew can cope is by losing himself in the virtual world of Championship Manager. Under his guidance, Spurs have just beaten Barcelona, Christian Eriksen is still with the club and is actually tying, and Tanguy Ndombele has played every minute of every game. It may be fantasy, but I – and 60,000 others – would much rather be watching Matthew’s Spurs than Mourinho’s.
It’s the little things that count. After I had spent much of the week enviously eyeing up the hand sanitiser lying around on his desk, my friend Rajeev reached into his bag and brought out another bottle and gave it to me. I was totally overwhelmed as you can’t buy the stuff for love nor money anymore. “I want you to live after all,” he said. The nicest words I’d heard in ages. Everyone I know can talk of little but the coronavirus anymore. From those who repeat at length how they “really, really aren’t that worried about it at all” to people like me who fear they might be living on borrowed time. I can’t say I’ve yet heard anyone dolefully singing happy birthday to themselves, but I can report that I’ve never seen such frantic hand washing in the gents toilets in Westminster. The message is clearly getting through now that Boris has been sidelined and the scientific grown-ups are effectively running the country. Whitty was out again before the health select committee to update us on the spread of the virus and plans to contain it. Though he didn’t have much good news to report, he was able to tell committee chair, Jeremy Hunt, there was no point in everyone dressing up in hazmat suits; principally because they are fiendishly difficult to get off and you’re very likely to infect yourself while doing so. Another friend, Kevin, did wonder if Whitty might not have missed a trick. Given that a key part of the advice is for people not to touch their faces – something most of us do the whole time – Kevin wondered if we shouldn’t all be wearing the “cone of shame” that dogs are given to stop them scratching themselves. As the outside of the plastic could also ward off aerial droplets, this could stop the virus in its tracks. It would also have a secondary benefit of protecting dogs. One pooch has already been infected by his owner kissing him.
I have enough problems trying to deal with my own mental health, but now it seems I should be paying as much attention to Herbert Hound’s. A Finnish study of more than 13,740 mutts that was published in the journal Scientific Reports has found that nearly three-quarters of pets display problematic anxiety-related behaviour. Having checked through the symptoms, Herbie appears to be less disturbed than some. I don’t know if he howls when we’re not there – though I dare say if I had an Alexa I could find out – but he doesn’t appear too bothered, as he doesn’t chase his tail or trash the place. Neither is he at all aggressive: quite the reverse in fact. He is completely terrorised by the cats who treat him with contempt. My one area of concern with Herbie is his OCD behaviour, though I rather suspect that could be something he has learned from me. We are both at our happiest when we are doing the same things that we always do. On walks we play the same games with sticks and neither of us ever gets bored of them: precisely because we know how they are going to end. Herbie is also still bewildered that the squirrels he chases can disappear by running up trees. Though that could be because he isn’t that bright. He also likes to sleep in the same place each night: on our bed. Still, I will be doing my best to protect him this weekend by preventing him from watching Crufts on TV. He is a very woke dog and he still hasn’t quite come to terms with me telling him some years ago that cockapoos are no platformed for the elite pedigree competition and only allowed in as a novelty act. So best no one tells him it’s that time of year again.
Digested week: “The Return of the Experts”