HELP! I’ve come down with a curious corona crush

THE DAILY MAIL

As far as I can see, there’s only one upside to the fact I’ve been sitting at home alone while self-isolating for the past ten weeks — not even permitted to buy paint on purpose to watch it dry.

And that’s the comforting knowledge that at least I definitely can’t catch anything living like this. But then, a few days ago, the symptoms started.

I was watching hours of bad news on TV as usual when a Conservative MP called Dr Luke Evans popped up via video link to ask a question of the House of Commons Health Select Committee. Suddenly, I was stricken with all the tell-tale signs: soaring temperature, fevered pulse, feelings of faintness…

 ‘Oh no, oh no, oh no,’ I clutched my skull, googling furiously for more information on Dr. Dreamy McDreamface. ‘I think I’m coming down with it…’

The coronavirus crush is a distressing physiological phenomenon that has spread though all my single female friends and several of the married ones too. Symptoms do vary but the most alarming is a total lack of taste.

‘Don’t you find,’ my best mate asked (she was the first to succumb.) ‘That you just cannot get enough of Matt Hancock’s face?’Constant exposure seems to cause the most acute cases.

How else to account for a 32-year-old woman (who shall remain nameless) demanding her birthday cake be decorated with an edible photograph of Keir Starmer’s head? 

Some remain stoical. (‘I don’t care what anyone thinks, Dominic Raab is yummy.’) Others are mortified. Insist they can’t possibly tell you what they’re going through. Only to phone you, scared, several hours later, because they realise they really do find Rishi Sunak in a sharp suit sexier than Paul Mescal in nothing but a neck chain.

So I took to social media – thinking it might be possible to track and trace – and found corona-crushes raging uncontrollably.

‘Oliver Dowden,’ one confession reads. ‘At first I was put off by the posh accent but then I got hopelessly lost in his cultural policy…’

‘Robert Jenrick,’ adds another. ‘He’s just slightly more competent than everyone else.’ 

In America, I’m told, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York and Governor Gavin Newsom of California are super spreaders of romantic fever, as is New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. 

In the current climate, no one is safe – least of all your ageing parents. Mine seem to be get more het up about the daily press briefings than any steamy old repeat of Poldark. ‘I have to go,’ my mother hissed, the last time I called her at 5pm. I turned on the TV. Saw the trouble. Gove was on again. 

Obviously, it’s very worrying to think your mother has such a severe case, she’s now mad keen on the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, or ‘Michael’ as she calls him. So I try to keep a close check on the progress of the disease over FaceTime.

I’d warned her to take proper precautions, so how could she account for herself? ‘I don’t know,’ she says, all flustered. ‘I think maybe it’s something to do with the fact he answers all the bloody stupid questions he keeps getting asked so politely.’ 

Thankfully for the state of my parents’ marriage, my father is being comforted by Priti Patel. ‘She doesn’t take any nonsense,’ he says, dismissing the rival for his wife’s affections as silky and effete by comparison.

Once upon a time, politics was considered ‘showbiz for ugly people’. But now Boris Johnson is bigger box office than James Bond. Cinemas remain closed but the Prime Minister’s lockdown announcement had an audience of 27.5 million making it one of the most-watched television broadcasts in British history.

Thanks to coronavirus, politicians you couldn’t have picked out of a police line up six months ago are now the most famous people in the land. In the absence of access to hunks and heartthrobs, middle-aged men who once would have been considered perfectly ordinary-looking (if not downright unappealing) suddenly seem about as appetising as Daniel Craig.

So what the hell is going on?

 ‘We humans have an almost unconscious bias towards finding people with power a little more attractive than mere mortals without it,’ explains psychologist Emma Kenny. ‘Whilst from the outside looking in, this can appear to speak to a shallow side of human nature, it is actually a pretty sensible survival instinct. ’All of us are alive today because our female ancestors selected a mate who kept her and her babies safe in primeval environments and so, now, we must not blame ourselves if we feel helplessly – and impossibly – drawn to the men seeking to protect us from coronavirus. A caveman repeatedly bellowing ‘stay alert’ at a time when there were sabre tooth tigers roaming around could well be the reason we exist.

Yes it feels pervy and wrong to be thinking ‘oh dear God, I actually might…’  But let’s forgive ourselves OK? No one blames anyone for fancying a film star. If we had no tender feelings at all we’d cease to produce humans. 

Plus, power is a powerful aphrodisiac that we may never have been exposed to before. Surely it must account for the sexual success of the Prime Minister – how else could a man so flabby and dishevelled have attracted a string of mistresses and produced (at least) six children? Also, at a time of crisis, the most boring qualities – such as basic competence – become sexy as hell.

‘Look, there are people out there making papier-mâché idols of Professor Chris Whitty,’ a Facebook friend concludes. 

All this may have been going on for longer than we think. Up close and personal, Francois Mitterand allegedly declared that Mrs. Thatcher had ‘the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.’

‘I feel deeply disturbed by all this actually,’ the friend who first alerted me to the corona-crush complains. ‘I’ve never voted Tory. I never will vote Tory and yet I’m hooked on Hancock – who I object to very much politically. Will there ever be a cure?’

Yes, is the reassuring answer.

After researching the matter closely, I am convinced that the corona-crush is a kind of collective Stockholm syndrome. Right now, we feel forced to accept extraordinary restrictions on our freedom. Trapped in our homes, we have no one to gaze at but those who hold us captive. If you live alone, you haven’t had so much as a hug in two months, sex is a distant memory, and you feel a savage thrill just seizing a packet of pasta at the supermarket. 

Hopefully, however, this will fade away with Covid-19. We’ll forget all these MP’s names, and form attachments to real men who are actually attractive. 

‘Just like you may have fancied that odd looking teacher in your year 12 drama class, you are realising that looks, have little to do with lust,’ Kenny concludes. ‘Fortunately, these types of feelings tend to be fleeting, because they are based on reinforcement… At some point, just as you woke up to the fact that your beloved boy band member was six inches shorter than you, and had really bad fashion sense, so too is it likely that you will wake up one day wondering how the hell you ever felt jealous of Carrie Symonds.’

Although I still make an exception for Dr Luke Evans.

HOW DATING APPS KILLED LOVE IN LONDON

On an epidemic of Bad Romance

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In London, love is dead.

Tinder killed it and Hinge is dancing on its grave. If the classic romcoms were set here today, When Harry Met Sally would be called Sally Never Met Harry (because she swiped right past him). Likewise, Bridget Jones’s Diary would be the tragic tale of a single woman who dies and ends up half eaten by Alsatians (as Darcy’s search filters were set to ‘non-smokers only’). Meanwhile, William Thacker wouldn’t be able to afford a cup of tea in Notting Hill let alone the rent on a bookshop that movie stars wander into — and even if a starlet was standing right in front of him, asking him to love her, he’d be too busy on Bumble to make eye contact.

The impact of dating apps on romance in the capital couldn’t be more catastrophic. If you see someone you like the look of in a bar or on an overcrowded Tube carriage, the absolute last thing you do is strike up a conversation. Being rejected — especially publicly — is not an option for a generation who grew up hiding behind computer screens and you don’t want to be accused of MeToo-ing anyone. Now when you lock eyes with a bona fide sex god/dess, all you can do is hope to God that Happn’s location services will pick them up and they’ll match with you. In London, the best-case scenario, romantically speaking, is to be  asked for your Snap so you can ‘chat’. Hardly a kiss under the clock at Waterloo station. 

In theory, online dating sounds so glorious. With a population of nine million, any single person in the capital should have thousands upon thousands of beautiful strangers whose hearts they could pierce with OKCupid’s arrow. But in practice, it’s bloody horrendous — dating apps don’t facilitate love, just lust. They’re like Deliveroo for satisfying our sexual appetites, so much so that ever increasing numbers of us now see staying celibate while spending more time with our mates as the most desirable thing on the menu — as far as our souls are concerned. For the whole of my 30s, I’ve been ‘benched’, ‘breadcrumbed’, ‘catfished’, ‘cuffed’, ‘curved’, ‘cushioned’, ‘fizzled’, ‘ghosted’, ‘haunted’, ‘stashed’, ‘submarined’ and ‘zombied’.

Last year, I was dumped — not once but twice — by a man I met on Hinge who I had (silly me) become terribly keen on. Maybe I should write and thank him. After murdering whatever hope remained within me that I’ll ever find a man to adore me who I’m matched with by algorithm, at least it meant I got a hell of a lot done. 

On the face of it dating apps are incredibly popular. In the UK, six million people are expected to use them this year. Then, every eligible Londoner will have at least three on their phone. The monopolies of Grindr and Tinder — which moved fastest and broke dating in the early 2010s — now seem out of date, responsible for a hook-up culture which has spread like a contagion from New York to London.

Meanwhile Bumble, Happn, Hinge and all the rest bill themselves as modern matchmakers each with their own gimmick in the game. On Bumble the woman must message first (it’s billed as ‘feminist’ though I can’t see how forcing one sex to make all the effort helps in the slightest.) Happn shows who you crossed paths with; Hinge’s ad campaign says it’s ‘designed to be deleted’ once you find your match. But of course you can always download it again if things don’t work out. And that’s all that happens. You get a bit excited, meet a guy, two days later, you’re like: ‘Oh, never mind.’ Again and again and again. 

After seven years of binge and bust, I no longer know what the hell the point is and like most long-term singles, I suffer in silence. And I’m not alone. About 56 per cent of adults view dating apps and services either ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ negatively according to one online survey, with 36 per cent of Brits claiming they’d prefer to meet their next partner face-to-face.

While researching my next book, Love In Late Capitalism, I collated a chorus of complaints about dating culture today. Everyone I spoke to who’d come off apps had reached their breaking point — whether they’d contracted a sexually transmitted disease from someone ‘who ghosted me while I was waiting for the test result from the doctor’, because all their ‘dates were just so, so, so dismal’, because ‘I’m fed up of always being flaked on at the last minute’ or because ‘you talk for several years and they never want to meet up at all’. It’s the feeling that it’s a complete free-for-all that most gets daters down. One woman became hopelessly dispirited after she agreed to two dates on one day and the men concerned turned out to be living together and that was a hashtag too far’s worth of awkward. ‘Dating apps suck balls,’ concludes my 31-year-old BFF who has never had a boyfriend but not for want of wanting one. According to him, heterosexuals have it easy. ‘In 2016 alone I went on 146 dates… Three stood out as men I could have imagined building a life with but as ever, they just weren’t that into me, and who can blame them? Who wants to have their cake and eat it when they could have the whole bakery?’

‘The fact is, most dating apps are not designed to be deleted,’ says Nichi Hodgson, author of The Curious History Of Dating. ‘Instead they want to retain you as a user for as long as they can muster, with around two years being the goal for many. In that time they expect you to date several people you meet through the app — returning every time each encounter sours to look for the next person on whom to pin your hopes.’ 

Even I’m not immune. About once every three months I succeed in stewing my brain in enough vodka to block out the memory of whatever-the-last-one’s-name-was and tell myself in the mirror: ‘If you don’t try you’ll never meet anyone.’ I then download Bumble (for the 387th time) and send message after message to any man who has a kind face who’ll disappear from my phone forever if I don’t talk to him within 24 hours of ‘liking’ each other.

Increasing desperation exacerbates the problem. You start to notice how, in the capital, romance has been annihilated. Say you do get a date. Are you enthusiastic about it? No. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results. Are you really supposed to believe that, if you keep at it, Mr Right will appear if you’ve spent 20 years of your life encountering endless Mr Wrongs? I always get confused when married people say they’re going on date nights. I can’t think of anything lovelier than never, ever having to go on one again. 

If your next big birthday’s 40, most of your dates go like this: you turn up, take one look at each other, something inside you says, ‘nah’, and it’s over in two drinks. You know you’ll have a better night if you take an early bath. 

That’s if you’re being polite, however. My last date wasn’t. The second he saw me the spark was extinguished in his eyes. Mid-way through staring at Helen Sharman’s space suit in the Science Museum, I realised he was standing at a distance from all the exhibits with his arms crossed. ‘Do you want to get something to eat?’ I suggested, as he steered us towards the exit. He did not. 

Not so long ago, you could assume that you were in some sense special. That the person you met would treat you like a human being with thoughts and feelings, not like an instantly replaceable avatar in this never-ending game they’re playing on their phones. But today, searching for love in London isn’t the way it used to be. A decade ago if you wanted to be treated like a piece of meat you could go to some sweaty club and snog someone random. But if you were seeing someone you had to be nice to them. Usually you met them in your local pub, they were a friend of a friend, you worked together, or shared something in common: like a bus route or a building. This meant you couldn’t just get rid of them on the click. If you acted badly there would be consequences, social opprobrium or a sense of shame. 

But now, the second someone does something ‘a bit off’ the whole situation gets snuffed out. Obviously, I’ve thought a lot about what I do wrong and the trouble is I’m insecure and send batty texts when I get nervous. Once upon a time a mutual friend, relative or co-worker would have been on hand to say: ‘Oh yes she’s mad as a coot but terribly sweet if you get to know her.’ In the age of the app, there’s no one to vouch for me. 

It isn’t just the men who are behaving badly; women can behave terribly, too. Forty-three per cent of all daters admit to lying online. If a date is a bit dull you can always spice it up with: ‘What’s the worst date you’ve ever been on?’ Everyone you meet will have a litany. The most appalling story I’ve ever heard was from a gorgeous man I batty-texted into submission who said he’d once gone on a date and the girl got so drunk she started racially abusing a waiter in an Indian restaurant and insisting he didn’t deserve a tip on top of the bill she wasn’t paying. 

While a man would never write on his dating app profile, ‘must be nine stone or lighter’, women rarely think about how awful it must be to read height requirements that basically equate to: ‘Don’t even talk to me if you’re short.’ One man I met admitted he never usually got anywhere because he was bald. 

Even one-night stands are too much commitment; Londoners are fond of the ‘half-night stand’. When I was promoting my first book, I was invited on to the Millennial Love podcast in which listeners wrote in with their dating stories. One young woman complained that she’d had a man over, bought him a pizza, given him an orgasm, paid for his Uber home, and thought this was all perfectly fine — until he couldn’t muster the manners to text her to say thank you. Something inside me screams, ‘We can’t go on like this!’ It is madness to treat people with so little respect. For me, apps don’t work. So I am now concentrating on meeting people the old-fashioned way and being much more patient. Trying to build up friendships first. Since I always sabotage by text, I write emails. When I get invited to parties, I don’t stand in one corner, I do as Jane Austen advised and take a turn about the room. A friend of mine asked everyone she knows to set her up on blind dates. She’s met a lovely man and is taking it very, very slow. 

Finding true love has always been hard, Hodgson insists. ‘When it comes to finding love, remember that modern dating apps are a capitalist enterprise focused on solving not the love problem, but the money problem,’ she advises. ‘They have commodified love like never before, and commodification is the killer of romance, which needs genuine attention, vulnerability and then just an ounce of calculated dare to thrive.’

In my 20s, before dating apps had been invented, I had boyfriends. Real ones. Not pseudo sort-ofs who pop up once a year, dangle the prospect of boyfriend-hood over my head like mistletoe and then scarper three seconds after I’ve slept with them. I try not to blame myself, say, ‘It just wasn’t meant to be,’ but I won’t be downloading dating apps again. Frankly, I’d rather be off them and die alone. There’s more dignity in that.

Hail to the Junk Food President

I have a new column – writing about politics and food – for the excellent Mace Magazine, which also features top articles by William Boyd, Anthony Seldon, Rowan Williams, Sarah Champion and Ken Clarke…

‘You are what you eat,’ the old adage insists and since we live in an age where politics makes almost no sense perhaps it’s time we took a look at what our politicians stuff down their gullets: it may reveal untold truths about them as well as the chaos they’re presiding over. 

So let’s begin by deconstructing the plate of the most powerful man in the Western world. Donald J. Trump’s diet is – as People magazine once put it -‘populist, cheap, and maybe too salty for most people’s taste.’ As you might guess from the shape of him, the 45th President of the United States exists on junk food. 

There were ‘four major food groups’ served on Trump Force One during the American election campaign, ex-aides David Bossie and Corey Lewandowski note: ‘McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, pizza and Diet Coke.’ Trump’s most regular order was ‘two Big Macs, two Fillet-O-Fish and a chocolate malted.’ The cupboards were stuffed with Vienna Fingers, potato chips, pretzels and Oreos. 

In addition to suggesting Trump is – by and large – composed of fat and sodium, this diet is also evidence of his rampaging paranoia. Michael Wolff claims his addiction to junk is rooted in his fear of being poisoned. He thought it safe to eat at McDonald’s since ‘nobody knew he was coming and the food was safely premade.’ At nights, he likes to eat cheeseburgers alone in his room whilst watching three television screens and talking on the phone. 

Some argue all this connects him to voters. Trump may be excessively rich but he chows down just like a blue collar voter. ‘There’s nothing more American and more of-the-people than fast food,’ Republican strategist Russ Schriefer reckons.

Did it win him the 2016 election? Certainly Hillary Clinton saw food as essential to that campaign – she devotes a whole chapter of her book, What Happened? to what she ate. For breakfast – it was egg whites and vegetables and she carried hot sauce in her handbag for every other meal.

Like almost everything else about her the details seem singularly inauthentic. (Who eats vegetables for breakfast? Does she really like hot sauce or was this – as many commentators suggested – an effort to connect with black voters, perhaps, in the hope they’d overlook her Super Predator speeches in the days of Bill?) 

On Hillary’s plane there weren’t any Oreos – just a nutritionist called Liz who made brownies out of chickpea flour. While everyone’s heard of a Big Mac, Hillary snacked on ‘Flavor Blasted Goldfish.’ It’s worth noting that in the days the Clintons ruled the world, her husband’s diet closely resembled Trump’s. Now – like many a Goldman Sachs trophy spouse – he’s vegan.  

Ultimately, the more you read about what Trump eats the more fallible and human he appears. While we fear he’s got his finger on the nuclear button, actually he’s just pressing a small red one in the Oval Office through which he can order a constant supply of Diet Coke.

Thinking about all that fizz and pop inside of him he must – surely? – trump constantly. Does this explain all his hysterical outbursts? 

No one knows. 

But it certainly demystifies him – and the state of his politics.

In defence of Dominic Cummings and his secret penchant for feminist books

25th October 2019

David Cameron once called him “a career psychopath.” Marina Hyde, a “crap Rasputin”. And now the feminists are getting stuck in, branding Dominic Cummings a “demonic succubus.”

What’s he gone and done this time, you might wonder? Shockingly, appallingly and unprecedentedly – he’s been photographed toting a book bag for the Persephone bookshop, revealing a hitherto unknown penchant for obscure women’s literature. 

Some say Cummings is a genius – and he certainly is, when it comes to hurling insults. (He’s called David Davis “thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus”, Ed Llewellyn “a classic third-rate suck-up-kick-down sycophant”, Cameron “a sphinx without a riddle” and Nick Clegg “self-obsessed, sanctimonious and so dishonest.”)

So one imagines that being denounced as a female demon who has sex with sleeping men will sadden him profoundly – surely they mean “incubus”? If our public intellectuals have no basic grasp of Latin what hope is there for bright young brains languishing in the state school system? Whatever happens Brexit-wise, his efforts at the Department of Education will always keep him secure in the heart of this inadequately educated comprehensive school girl…

Read on at The Daily Telegraph

There’s something thoroughly un-British about spontaneously bursting into applause

11th September 2019

‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’ is a hideously repetitive nursery song many of us were brainwashed with as children – which perhaps explains the spontaneous applause when Speaker Bercow resigned in the House of Commons earlier this week. 

Ultimately, it is a mass behaviour. Watching Bercow’s resignation at home, I almost found myself rising up to join in. Not because I felt he deserved any tribute but because whenever I hear anyone else clapping I can’t help but start clapping too. Like yawning, it’s irresistibly contagious…

Daily Telegraph

CARRY ON UP THE ZAMBEZI: ALEXANDRA FULLER’S ‘TRAVEL LIGHT, MOVE FAST’ REVIEWED

7th September 2019

I loved this book so much I was appalled. Why, when bookshops are stacked full of memoirs by authors who can’t write, isn’t Alexandra Fuller heaped up in perilous piles so near the till it’s impossible to evade her? This is like one of the most alluring Svetlana Alexievich testimonies, as if it had wandered out of the USSR and got lost in central Africa by way of a hospital in Budapest. It’s packed with exquisite jokes, quotes and details — such as when a doctor appears and ‘his gauzy green scrubs puffed out in great billows, the surgical-garb equivalent of Princess Di’s wedding dress…’

The Spectator

‘Bob Dylan? He’s like Confucius’: Cerys Matthews interviewed

31st August 2019

‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ was a Christmas classic for more than half a century until people suddenly began to worry that it was about yuletide date rape. ‘It was because of the video Tom Jones and I made,’ says Cerys Matthews, in her smoky Welsh lilt. She recorded a cover with Jones in 1999. The video showed the craggy old Welsh crooner slip something in her drink that turns Cerys into a high camp vamp. ‘The song is really innocent and beautiful and fun — it’s got a huge heap of humour and wit and I love it. That song is not our enemy. That woman is a strong woman. She’s there because she wants to be! It’s cold outside. They’re making love. Come on!’

The Spectator

Woman’s Hour

On Tuesday 20th August 2019, I was on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour with Jane Garvey talking about being single – the listener’s demanded it which was very exciting… Our segment starts at 30.18 & Rip Her To Shreds (the story about wearing leopard print to a party can be read here.)