Eight years after she died, Whitney Houston is to make a stadium comeback tour. At least a hologram of her is. So thousands of people will be paying to see someone who isn’t really there, while a live band plays along to a recording of her voice. However much you may have loved Whitney, it’s hard to think of anything more genuinely pointless. Do people imagine they are getting the same experience as if she was still alive? I’ve always felt that I lost out by being too young to see Maria Callas on stage, but nothing would induce me to attend a performance of Tosca in which a hologram of her appeared alongside current opera stars. Just about the only place where such fakery might work would be Eurovision. Personally, I’ve never got why so many people take the song contest so seriously. It seems self-evident both that most nations don’t much like the UK and vote in blocs against us and that we actually quite like the feeling of coming nearly last. Which is why the public invariably has chosen an entirely forgettable and rubbish song. Nor does this year’s attempt to professionalise the UK entry by cutting out the public middlemen and getting a record company to make the selection appear to have made any difference. On one hearing – more than enough – the chosen song is just as crap as ever. If we really wanted to get serious about winning the competition again, we should enter a hologram of a barefooted Sandie Shaw singing Puppet on a String. That would clean up, just as it did back in 1967.
Watching Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer chatting to one another in the green room before the Guardian’s leadership hustings in Manchester, I was struck by how well they appeared to get along. The leadership contest has dragged on for so long that they know exactly what the other is thinking and can almost finish each other’s sentences. They could certainly deliver each other’s election pitches as word perfectly and convincingly as they do their own. It’s not so much a contest as a touring roadshow where each of them does their 90-minute act and everyone plays by the rules. Each of them tells the same stories and makes the same gags while the others pretend they are hearing them for the first time and nod and laugh appropriately. Not that there aren’t some differences between them – Starmer frequently gets it in the neck for being both the architect of Labour’s Brexit policy and a typical white, male politician – but none of the barbs are ever intended to inflict any lasting damage. It’s all showbiz really. Of the three, Long-Bailey appears the most awkward. She says she doesn’t get nervous but her body language oozes tension and she can scarcely look the audience in the eye. It’s almost as if she is dying to cast off the shackles of her “continuity Corbyn” identity while fearing there would be nothing left if she did. Nandy has the confidence and the swagger of the outsider, though not all of her patter quite stands up to close examination. Starmer knows he’s the frontrunner but is at pains to prove he is taking nothing for granted. There’s another five weeks of this to go and all three will be glad when it’s over. Whatever the result.
In a speech to his followers in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis urged Catholics to give up insulting one another on social media for lent. “This is a time to give up useless words, gossip, rumours, tittle-tattle and speak to God on a first-name basis,” he said. Judging by my own Twitter feed not too many in the UK have taken heed of the Pope’s suggestion. Little more than a week after the “Be Kind” campaign was started following the death of Caroline Flack, some newspapers and individuals with a large number of followers seem to have gone straight back to either stirring up or condoning Twitter wars against any passing target. At times like these, I count myself lucky to have been blocked by Piers Morgan. I’ve never yet gotten round to giving anything up for lent. Partly because I have already given up most of the things that are bad for you – not out of any moral superiority, rather from a health necessity – and the idea of moving on to chocolate fills me with a sense of despair. But also because I’ve never been entirely sure of the purpose of giving things up for six weeks. Is it more a way of doing something positive for oneself or a form of self-punishment? My suspicion, having as a child observed my father give up alcohol every lent, is that for most people it’s predominantly the latter. Part of the attraction of self-denial is the deferred pleasure you know you will get from restarting at Easter. Besides which, I don’t really need any more extended trials in self-hatred as I do that regularly anyway. There hasn’t been a day this year when I haven’t woken up with a ball of anxiety in my gut and an overwhelming sense of failure in my head. Some days it’s been a struggle even to leave the house. So in my version of lent, I would much rather take things up that make me feel like a better person than cut things out. The problem is that I don’t seem to have enough will power to start.
Starmer 'astonished' that PM hasn't visited flood-hit areas
Ever since Boris Johnson became prime minister, I’ve had this lingering feeling that his government is trying to gaslight the country. That we are being asked to accept as normal things that just aren’t. Ministers regularly shift their positions on almost everything and it is people who have the temerity to remember these reverse ferrets who get the blame for talking the UK down. Just weeks before last year’s election, Boris insisted there was a million to one chance of the UK leaving the EU without a trade deal and at no point during the campaign did he do anything to correct this impression. Yet now the government is insisting that a 50-50 chance of no deal is the position it had all along. Nor does it seem normal that the prime minister should give himself a holiday during the floods – part of the job description is doing the front of house stuff, such as empathy with victims and the emergency services – or that ministers should avoid some news channels at a time when the country is threatened with a global pandemic. It feels reckless and irresponsible. I could go on as there are countless other examples, but Boris clearly believes in his own exceptionalism. That people don’t care enough and that he can get away with stuff other prime ministers couldn’t. I hope he’s wrong, though I’m starting to doubt myself. Just the other day, I found myself wondering if it was me who had got everything wrong. What if Brexit did turn out to be a wonderful success? That the north and south levelled up, the economy boomed, 40 hospitals did get built, social care and homelessness were fixed, mental health provision was available on demand, crime levels fell and the UK did become a more open, tolerant society who got on well with its European neighbours. If it did, would my own sense of identity collapse? I’ve mentioned this to my therapist and several friends. They’ve all told me not to worry. It’s just not going to happen.
Like many hypochondriacs I know, I’ve spent much of the past six weeks being relatively unbothered by the coronavirus. My health anxieties tend to be focused on conditions with a far higher fatality rate than about 2%, most of whom will be the very elderly and people with pre-existing conditions. Or, to put it brutally selfishly, people not like me. But just this week as the virus rapidly approaches pandemic proportions and it’s clear both that the World Health Organization has no idea how to stop it and that the UK government has almost no contingency plans in place – 15 high-dependency beds and the hope of flying a few more patients out to Sweden is unlikely to meet demand if worst fears of a 50% infection rate and 500,000 deaths prove accurate – have given me a few wobbles. Not enough to go out and buy face-masks and hand sanitiser, but enough to make me think that I could possibly be dead by the end of next month. In which case, maybe I should be putting my affairs in order. I’ve also been disturbed by reports of people being infected with the coronavirus a second time, as it occurred to me that it could be a virus that keeps coming for you and coming for you until it finally eliminates you. Not that I want to alarm you. Just putting you in touch with the thoughts of someone who has never yet found a situation that could not get worse. I also did vaguely wonder if this was all a government plot. For more than six months, Boris Johnson has insisted he has a fully thought out and costed plan for social care but has so far refused to share it with the country. Maybe the coronavirus was the secret plan all along.
Digested week: The part-time prime minister.