My passion for opera came about entirely by accident. It was late 1980 and my mother and sister had tickets to see Verdi’s Otello. At the last minute, my mother fell ill and my sister asked whether I wanted to go in her place. My initial reaction was why on earth would I want to do that as I’d only ever listened to pop music. But then she told me that the tickets had cost £25 each – a small fortune back then – and I thought I’d come along for the lig if nothing else. Within minutes of hearing Jon Vickers’s opening Esultate I was hooked and by the end I knew I had found my perfect art form. Music, poetry and drama all combined into a gateway to the soul. Opera has been a constant in my life ever since. Much like therapy. And just as expensive. In the last couple of weeks I have been to see The Marriage of Figaro and La Fille du régiment at the Royal Opera House and L’arlesiana at Opera Holland Park. All three productions have been wonderfully staged and beautifully sung and I’ve left each one believing – just momentarily – myself to be a little more hopeful and the world to be better than it really is. In such chaotic times when so much feels up for grabs, opera has never felt more necessary for my daily survival. Just listen to the end of act four of The Marriage of Figaro and you too can feel redemption is possible.
Upstairs at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster the world’s largest gathering of psychoanalysts were meeting for their biennial congress. They couldn’t have picked a better time and place, for downstairs there were so many classic pathologies on view in the form of Tory MPs waiting to crown their new leader, they could have easily have been mistaken as case studies who had been bussed in. One of the more unexpected Brexit bonuses that politicians seldom talk about is the increased levels of anxiety, despair and other neuroses among the general public. All of which has meant boom times for the nation’s shrinks. My friend, Debby, who is a therapist, gets so many referrals she has to turn people away each week. Every cloud and all that. The actual coronation of Boris Johnson turned out to be a bizarre freak show masquerading as a jobs’ fair with MPs elbowing each other out of the way to get in front of any passing journalist to declare their undying commitment to whatever they needed to commit undyingly to. When the actual announcement was made, everyone stood up and started clapping and roaring their approval. On and on the applause went. Because no one wanted to be the first person to be seen to stop. It was only sheer collective exhaustion that brought it to an end. The most disturbing sight, though, was Johnson’s father, Stanley. Asked whether he felt proud, he replied that he did because the ambition had skipped a generation. It was as if a God-given birthright had been fulfilled. The sense of entitlement was breathtaking.
After giving a speech outside Downing Street in which he claimed what was wrong with the United Kingdom was that half of us were too gloomy and needed to cheer up a bit – a strange way to unite the country, not least because there is nothing more guaranteed to make someone depressed than a delusional narcissist telling you to be happy – Boris Johnson went inside to appoint his cabinet. Not so much a reshuffle as an entire change of government. Never let it be said Johnson doesn’t know how to hold a grudge. Out went the vaguely decent and moderately useless, and in came the completely venal and morally compromised. Imagine a cabinet so bad that even Chris Grayling, the Failures’ Failure, chose to quit before he was sacked. A cabinet in which Gavin Williamson, who was allegedly sacked for leaking details of a national security council briefing, is reinstated as education secretary. In which the once pro-hanging Priti Patel, who was sacked for being less than candid about conducting her own private diplomacy with Israel, is put in charge of the country’s security as home secretary. Still, there was an upside. After weeks of increasingly desperate brown-nosing, Matt Hancock did not get the promotion he craved. Instead he stayed at health. The most terrifying appointment was not even at cabinet level. Johnson has asked the former Vote Leave campaign director, Dominic Cummings, a man so toxic he can even fall out with himself, to be a senior adviser. Cummings may well have to restrict himself to No 10 though. Since he was found to be in contempt of parliament earlier in the year, he may struggle to get a Palace of Westminster pass.
One measure that Boris Johnson could introduce immediately to stop people like me being so gloomy is to install canned laughter speakers in every public place. New research has proved that canned laughter isn’t just spliced into programmes to remind us that we are supposed to be watching a sitcom rather than a documentary: it does actually make us laugh more in response. The possibilities for psychiatric renewal are endless. Recently I have spent more time than I would like in the Boris Routemaster buses that have been specifically designed to act as saunas in hot weather. Within minutes of getting on every passenger has been dripping with sweat and looking thoroughly fed up. What we clearly needed was canned laughter – or Can Do Laughter, as I expect it to be branded – to make us all start singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. Here is the real solution to Brexit. Can Do Laughter in job centres, hospitals, trains and on the roads. Especially outside Dover. I’d also be feeling a little more positive if the retirement home companies weren’t quite so persistent in their mailshots. Despite my never having replied or expressed any interest whatsoever, one company has redoubled its efforts and is now offering me a £30 John Lewis voucher just to go and have a look around. I can sense I’m about to break. When my wife and I turned 50, I suggested to my wife we should go on a Saga cruise on the grounds that we would be bound to be the youngest, hippest people on board. That ship has since sailed long ago.
And … that’s it from me for the next month. We’re off on holiday. First to stay with some friends in France, home for a day to see Spurs’ first game of the new season and then to Minneapolis to see our daughter and her husband. I’m going to try and put Westminster to the back of my mind – though I’ll probably fail – and reconnect with the people who matter most to me and relax. In the past 10 days two lovely men I knew well – my cousin and a friend – have died far too young. They will be much missed and their deaths a reminder not to take anything for granted. I also hope to actually get round to reading a book. When I was writing the Digested Read I got through at least one book a week: this year has been so frantic that I’ve realised I haven’t managed to do more than dip in and out of a few books. I’d like to say that I was going to use the time profitably to read something challenging, but the first two books on my pile are yet another account of the Apollo moon landings – I’ve read so many I reckon I could land the lunar module myself by now – and the new Jo Nesbo. Easing myself back in. Maybe after that I can move on to the Booker longlist which looks promising. I hope to see you all on the other side. The autumn could be quite a ride.
Digested week: Enter the World King Baby