‘I have barely worn trousers for five months now. In the Zoom era no-one sees below the fifth button of your shirt. You could get away with wearing nothing at all’
There’s a serviceable potboiler to be written featuring a mysterious Svengali who sets out to destroy Britain’s institutions from within. Our anti-hero will have spent an unexplained period in Russia earlier in his life. He later surfaces at the heart of government—appointed by a weak political leader who is impressed by his radical blueprint for reform and his gift for poisonous briefing. One by one he sets out to destroy trust in the civil service, the BBC, the education establishment, the media, science, international alliances, “elites” of any kind. His method: discredit then destroy. There is some low-hanging fruit. The House of Lords is a sitting duck, because it is so easy to stuff with such random people that it would lose any slender legitimacy it once enjoyed. This former sportsman, those ex-newspaper editors, this son-of-a-KGB agent press baron.
But even our anti-hero might have wondered if he could get away with Claire Fox, who has never repudiated her support for the IRA (or tobacco). Such an appointment would help terminally discredit the Lords—but surely he couldn’t get away with it. You might have expected an alert member of the House of Lords Appointment Commission to have investigated Fox, and where the money came from to support her various ventures. Maybe Charles Moore, a beady-eyed editor and staunch Unionist? But, no, he resigned in November 2019—and was himself ennobled eight months later. Actually, forget the potboiler. You couldn’t make it up.
Imagine this: as late as 2019, Oxford University still required its students to dress up in fancy clothes and sit in cavernous rooms to sit their exams using a pen! I’m not sure I could do it. I couldn’t, today, even use a typewriter—just as I felt completely at sea recently trying to use a SLR with film after years of shooting in digital. The process of writing (and thinking) on a computer is quite different from using a pen, which requires you to compose thoughts and entire sentences in advance. Computers allow you to be far more iterative and changeable. Many twentysomethings have barely used a pen in their lives, and yet universities required them to sit maybe 25 hours of exams over the course of 10 days scrawling essays in ink. Most students hate it: and pity the poor tutors squinting over barely-legible scripts. For years Oxford has discussed how this might change. And then, Covid. In the space of a few weeks an entirely new process for examining was devised—including word processors. Whether or not Oxford will go back to requiring finalists to dress up to take exams is open to question. But I would be amazed if the university reverted to asking them to use a pen.
I have barely worn trousers for five months now. In the Zoom era no-one sees below the fifth button of your shirt. You could get away with wearing nothing at all. In fact, I have converted to wearing something variously described as track pants, trackies, joggers or plain old track suit bottoms. My first pair were a gift from my fashion-conscious daughter, who thought I was in need of moderning up. For a few days I was unconvinced—but soon became used to the fluidity, comfort, warmth (Uniqlo fleece-lined) or cool (stretchy cotton). No ironing, no belts, no contest.
As term-time approaches in Oxford I am in a quandary. The concept of formal dining or High Table—with all the dress codes implied—is, for the time being, a victim of Covid. And yet I’m not sure that even a progressive college such as Lady Margaret Hall is ready for a Principal in trackies. But a further quandary. I have recently settled on my perfect pair of summer joggers—a relaxed-fitting design by Hugo Boss, marred only by the logo embroidered by the left pocket. But in The Times I spot a picture of Boris Johnson’s weirdo adviser, Dominic Cummings, turning up to work in the identical pair. I text my daughter for advice. “Bin,” she instantly texts back. “Absolutely bin. His fashion sense is ‘deeply thought out even though I want you proles to think I’m above this frippery.’ It also screams: ‘I WANT TO BE AN ECCENTRIC GENIUS.’” But they’re so comfortable, I feebly protest. “They’re okay at home,” she concedes. “But you know it’s a slippery slope until you go out to just one shop. Then two. Then dinner . . .” She’s right. Her solution: “Lean into trendy fisherman clothes.”
didn’t use lockdown finally to read Middlemarch. I didn’t become a better pianist, write a novel or learn Italian. I did enjoy learning much more about cooking (stand-out discovery: fennel). I took online clarinet lessons. I messed around with DIY—building shelves and creating various ways of diverting and storing rainwater. And we watched too much indifferent stuff. But, also, some wonderful things. Chernobyl (so nightmarish it had be chased with an episode of Fawlty Towers). The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. Unorthodox. And a few old black and white classics. If you’ve missed them do try Destry Rides Again (1939), a wonderful western about the rule of law. And Salt of the Earth (1954) is a powerful feminist drama about a strike in New Mexico. And, of course, you can’t get through a period as bleak as lockdown without re-watching the greatest of them all: Some Like it Hot.