Virtual reality to virtual rubbish: a torrid week for Tory tech

John Crace
·9-min read

Monday

If you’re going to have a virtual party conference then it’s as well to either have a functioning online platform or to keep the whole thing as low key as possible. The Tories somehow managed to do neither, even though none of their keynote speakers seemed to have anything of interest to say. The website itself was a total disaster. Friends who had logged in over the weekend reported major glitches with the site and they were still in evidence when I checked in today. First off it took me an age to actually find any sign of life. After several failed attempts to get in to a “fireside’ chat” with Gavin Williamson, I ended up in a fringe event with Steve Barclay that was buffering so badly it was impossible to tell if he was talking sense or not – my guess is not – and the only way to leave the meeting was to switch off and reboot my laptop. After I had logged back in, the only way I managed to catch Rishi Sunak’s short and sweet 10-minute lightness of being keynote speech was by catching up on Facebook later on as the icon for the main auditorium had gone missing from the front page of the website. It was the advertisers I felt most sorry for though, as most had paid thousands of pounds for the pleasure of not being able to be found by visitors. The online exhibition hall turned out to be pitch black with just a few icons that only worked intermittently. It took several attempts to find some jewellery I didn’t want, along with some face masks, greeting cards and Boris Johnson T-shirts that I didn’t want. The weirdest stand was something called “Rose Garden”, which I had imagined might be an online garden centre. Instead all I got was a 30-second video of Boris Johnson in a hi-vis jacket making various promises that he had no idea if he could keep that was playing on a loop. Somehow it felt like a metaphor for the entire conference.

Tuesday

First we had “hygge”, the Danish art of cosy intimacy where you sit around at home with loved ones watching Scandi-noir dramas about serial killers. Next we had “lykke”, which was a more refined form of hygge – think finding a bit of a stale slice of pizza at the back of the fridge when you have just got back home after a hypothermic walk in subzero temperatures – that could make you feel even happier than when lighting scented candles. Then we had Marie Kondo inviting us to tidy our clothes and throw away anything in the house that didn’t make us feel good about ourselves. Now the latest craze is the Dutch practice of “niksen. Apparently people in the Netherlands are even happier than those in Scandinavia and Japan, because they have perfected the art of doing nothing. Just staring into space and feeling at one with yourself. It sounds very much like the eastern art of Zen, but now a new book by Olga Mecking is determined to reclaim niksen for the Dutch. In theory I rather like the idea, but the reality is that I find it almost impossible to switch off. Emptying my mind only appears to make more space for anxiety. Even sleeping provides no respite, as I wake up exhausted and disturbed from the vividness of my dreams. The book comes with useful tips for practising niksen: apparently standing in a supermarket queue is the perfect place to zone out. Something I find impossible as I am too busy worrying if people are standing 2 metres apart or wearing their face masks the wrong way. I’m conscious that the loss is mine – I long for time off from myself – but somehow I feel that me and niksen just aren’t cut out for one another. For now I will stick with the mindlessness of the exercise bike.

Donald Trump
‘And on the third day I rose again’. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Wednesday

Over the years I have taken a lot of stick from my family and friends for the pointlessness of my various collections. First there was the stamp collection that I began as a child and revived as an adult when my Dad left me a small amount of money in his will. That obsession ended when I realised I had narrowed down my area of specialisation to such an extent that I was wasting years going through dealers’ catalogues in search of booklet panes that I couldn’t even be certain existed as the stamps could have been broken off and used. Even I could see it needed to stop at that point. Then there was the Tottenham Hotspur memorabilia – old programmes and match tickets – and the Panini football sticker albums that took over much of my study. Now my collections are limited to books and ceramics. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve had to increase the shelf space to accommodate them all. But I now realise I have been positively restrained, a complete amateur compared with Leonard and Alison Shurz, whose three-bedroom house near Welwyn Garden City was crammed with thousands of ceramics, including some by well-known artists, such as Lucie Rie, that they had collected over many decades. Leonard died last year and Alison is now in a home, so their children have understandably decided to sell most of the pots. When the auctioneer went in to value the collection, he said he could barely get into some rooms as there were pots in every available space. He had to tiptoe around expensive ceramics on the stairs, clear a path through the living room to the sofa and it was a wonder that nothing had got broken. The auction is on Saturday and needless to say I have eyed up several lots on which I am planning to bid. Even though I have no idea where I am going to put them if I happen to win them. May the spirit of the Shurzes live on.

Thursday

There is some debate over whether Rishi Sunak’s comments earlier this week that people should think about retraining for other careers applied solely to those working the arts and entertainment industries, or whether they were a wider observation on the way the job market was changing as a whole. But they have sparked a fun Twitter sideshow in which people have taken to completing the government’s own careers and skills questionnaire online to see what jobs they should be doing instead. One actor was informed he would be better off training to be … an actor. And a well-known journalist was told she should be … a less well-known journalist on half the salary. My own results were rather more disturbing and eclectic. First it suggested I became a professional sportsman, boxer or football referee. You might have thought the questionnaire would have asked about my age, the condition of my knees and talents first. And I don’t remember filling in a question that said I particularly enjoyed having my head punched. However, it also said that if those careers didn’t appeal I should try my hand at being an office manager, a call centre operative, a leisure centre assistant or a chef. I’m not sure any of these are the sort of careers at which my friends and colleagues would have imagined I excel. Though spaghetti bolognese is my signature dish. To test the accuracy of the questionnaire, I then filled it in again, this time trying to answer as honestly as I could as if I were Boris Johnson. This is what I got back: “Because of your answers, we could not recommend any job categories. You might want to go through the assessment again to check that your responses were correct.” So for once there was clearly nothing wrong with the government’s algorithms.

Friday

Happy birthday to me. Today I am 64 and find myself wondering how the time seems to have passed so quickly. It feels not that long since I was worried about turning 50. My big regret is that I just wish I could have enjoyed it all a bit more, as I have been extremely lucky to have such loving family, friends and colleagues and a job which means so much to me. The older I get, the more I find myself thinking of my own father. He was 77 when he died, at a time when I was still very much a work in progress – I still am, I suppose – and I would have dearly loved him to see the adults his grandchildren have become. I also clearly remember my Dad’s 64th birthday, partly because I couldn’t quite believe how old he seemed, but mainly because it was then that he started planning for his retirement from being a West Country village vicar. He was worried about going stale and had determined that it would be bad for him and bad for his parishioners if he were to continue past his 65th birthday. I have no such thoughts of retirement. In fact, the idea scares me rather, as I can’t really imagine a life without working. Maybe that will change in the coming years and I will start to think of things I want to do when my time is more my own, but I’m not there yet. But then, I have this constant, nagging feeling that I wasted too much time early on in my life and that I need to atone and make up. That I somehow lived my life the wrong way round. When my Dad was 24, he had survived – just – the experience of having spent the previous six years serving in the Royal Navy during the war. At the same age I was four years into what would turn out to be a 10-year heroin habit. Even after I stopped taking drugs, it took many years for me to learn who I really was and what really mattered to me. Which is a roundabout way of saying that he deserved his retirement at 65 and I am still years behind the father whom I love and miss.

Digested week: The new weekly budget