Whatever your politics, whatever you think of Michael Gove’s designs on our school system, I defy you to read yesterday’s newspaper interview with his brilliantly unhinged former consigliere Dominic Cummings and resist the urge to bang your fist on the table in satisfied, pained agreement.
The only people who could possibly absorb Cummings’s observations on the inertia of bureaucracy without experiencing at least a shiver of recognition are his primary targets, David Cameron and Downing Street chief of staff Ed Llewellyn. Cameron, we are told, is a “sphinx without a riddle”; Llewellyn is a “classic third-rate suck-up-kick-down sycophant”. In fact, though, Cummings sees those two as mere polish on the turd that is the British government – a system so dysfunctional and counterproductive that it can only be saved if it is destroyed, and rebuilt from the ground up.
This is all bracing, and wildly entertaining, stuff: it’s so satisfying and rare to get a really serious political evisceration with the speaker’s name attached. In among all this truth-telling, though, the line that really stuck with me was one which had a far less narrowly political meaning: instead, it was about the faith we all seem to have in others who are smarter than we are. “Everyone thinks there’s some moment, like in a James Bond Movie, where you open the door and that’s where the really good people are,” Cummings said. “But there is no door.”
There is no door! That’s exactly it. It must be particularly disappointing in politics. I used to think, rather naively, that the people who got elected were the best and the brightest among us; then I met a few MPs, and realized that quite a lot of people in Westminster were no more brilliant than that guy in your office who sends out crass jokes by global email and doesn’t seem to realize that it’s antisocial to eat curry al desko. The occasional conversation with people better versed in that world than me confirmed a gathering suspicion: that, given the right timing and a following wind, a person with roughly the competence you might expect to find its ceiling in a business’s middle management could easily end up as a junior minister.
This makes sense, when you think about it: the things that make a person electable are by no means the same things that make them good at running stuff. By Cummings’s account, at least, something similar could be said about the civil service. However – and more usefully for the rest of us – these surprising inadequacies are not limited to the political sphere. And I wish I had realised it years ago.
Of all the theories of growing up, I think this is the most useful and universal: that the only really reliable indication that you have sloughed off your youthful inadequacies comes in the realization that you are probably never going to. For a while – maybe for quite a long time – you look at the generation above you and think: they’ve got it sorted. They’ve reached that vital tipping point after which you don’t feel sick about having a difficult work conversation, and keep your socks in pairs without having to think about it. And then, as the years stack up, it gradually dawns on you: that never happens. They are faking it just like you. There is no door.
None of this is to say that there aren’t brilliant people all over the place – even in Cummings’s cursed government. It is to say that all of life is an improvisation, and even the calmest looking ducks are paddling like maniacs under the water. Faking it is more than half the battle. And in a sense, this is depressing. But in another, it’s rather liberating, because it makes you realize: you may not in fact be any more useless than anybody else. And, with this being the case, you might as well give it your best shot.
You can’t beat a good multiplex
Cinephiles, rejoice! You’re supposed to, anyway, at the news that independent cinemas are enjoying a revival, holding up against the onslaught of the multiplex far better than anyone expected a decade ago – and even expanding.
As a snotty cultural moralist, I guess I approve. As a punter, I just can’t. I’ve never understood the fetishisation of independent cinemas: everyone says the seats are better, but that’s never been my experience – the so-called sofas at one of London’s best-known indies feel as if they’ve been bought from a budget store. Then there are the snacks. Give me the artificial, teeth-granulating delights of a pick-n-mix over wasabi bloody peas any day.
I know some disagree, but to be honest, if I want high art I’m happy with a DVD. A trip to the movies, for me, is all about a gigantic communal experience, whooping and sobbing cheerfully at popcorn storytelling – and you don’t get that in the arthouse. If I want a real Everyman cinema, I’ll head for the Odeon.