Thursday, 4 May 2017

The Election Diaries: Day 15: 2nd May 2017: Blair Therapy


Tuesday 2nd May 2017

Day 15

"You need to go back to therapy" my mother informs me, as I sit at the kitchen bar. "I'm flabbergasted you couldn't handle that last night."

My mother says this with the greatest of love, but manages to sound still slightly stunned.

It doesn't help that we have this conversation as we're sitting, listening to a footballer on the radio talk about the rising need to talk about mental health. It makes my mother all the more convinced.

I don't have anything against therapy, I have something against therapy for me. It's not the CBT or the exercises. It's the talking. I hate talking about my feelings. It's just not something I like to do.

I can appreciate the irony that I'm posting all this on a blog, but that's different, somehow. I'm the one with the agency and the control. Whenever I enter a therapist's office, I always end up casting a suspicious glance at the box of tissues invariably left out, as though they're there simply to prompt a Pavlovian gush of tears.

On the plus side, Diane Abbott is on LBC. My mother cackles with delight.

My mother's dislike of Diane Abbott is long-held, furious and cherished. Being that my mother's fairly right-wing, she'd dislike Abbott's political beliefs, anyway. But it's Abbott's personality that really sets her-and me-off.
The way she condescends. The way she speaks very slowly, her voice, as Julie Burchill described it in the Spectator, as an oleaginous patronizing mucus, or something along those lines. I don't agree with Jess Phillips much but the moment she told Abbott to "f*** off" in one of her first PLP meetings was a highlight.

(As, indeed, was Phillips' response when asked what Abbott did in reply. "She f***ed off.")

But today, Diane Abbott delivers us something beautiful. An interview, during which she manages to get the cost of Labour's police policy so spectacularly wrong that it's a miracle even for her. I read about it on Twitter first and then, cackling, tell my mother. We turn the news on to discover it's made all the headlines.

My mother being a Daily Politics aficionado, that's our second port of call. And sure enough, there's Diane, plonked on the sofa, while Dominic Raab tries not to smirk too openly next to her.

The entire discussion with Jo Coburn rings of a firm but fair primary school teacher keeping two bickering children in at playtime to think about what they could have done differently. Or at least, if one of the children understood what was going on, and the other had less clue than a marshmallow, which incidentally, I would breathe easier with as Home Secretary than Diane Abbott.

Jezza, of course, has forgiven his former flame quicker than that motorbike he rode on that holiday abroad with her. (Not a euphemism.)

We have builders in, so I can only work in one room-I end up sitting on the couch in the open-plan kitchen/living-room, with the TV blaring. The house shakes with noise. It's also the 20th anniversary of Blair walking into Downing Street.

My earliest memory of my impressions of Tony Blair-who came to power less than a month after I was born- is peering with great interest at one of my father's Private Eyes. Tony Blair was on the cover.

At the age of around four, I had no knowledge of the name Tony Blair. All I knew of the man in the photograph was that he had a smile that was big and too many teeth that were too white.

"Who's that man?" I said, jabbing him right in the eye with my finger.

My mother glanced casually at the page, then seized the paper. She held it out in front of her, glowering at the man's toothy beam as if he'd personally spat in her face.

"That-" she said, forehead creased with fury. "Is the wicked man who runs our country."

She then proceeded to hold the paper out in front of her, take a deep breath, then ceremoniously rip the page in two.

It is suitable that on the 20th anniversary of Blair walking into Downing Street, the constant rumble of noise gives the impression that the world is ending.

I remember little about Blair as a child-I only learnt of the many downsides and hypocrisies of his "reign" when I was older-but a couple of years later, I remember Blair being filmed chattering on the screen, customarily flashing his big grin. It seemed more of an effort this time, I remember-I have a vague feeling it might have been around the time of the 2005 election, so maybe Iraq was catching up with him. I remember noting he looked older.

During the interview, Blair committed the cardinal sin of describing something as "dead wrong." My primary school teacher, grammar-nazi mother sucked in her breath. Every time I uttered the phrase "dead" anything, I was corrected.

"Mummy" I said, with eight-year-old scorn. "The Prime Minister just used the phrase "dead wrong."" (I was often told I talked like a little old woman as a child.)

"I know." My mother shook her head, rolling her eyes. "Ignorant man."

On another occasion, sitting cross-legged on the carpet at school (these were the days when I went to school) my teacher tapped on the whiteboard.

"Now" she said, to the upturned faces of six-and-seven-year-olds in front of her. "We've been talking about lies and truth, haven't we?"

Earnest nodding.

"Now, Pinocchio's nose got long when he lied. Is there anyone else we can think of who's known for being a famous liar?"

As the others called out their suggestions, I put my hand up. My original name was Matilda from the Hilaire Belloc poem that my mother had read to me when I was three, and that I'd acted out happily in my weekly drama lessons. But then something else occurred to me.

"Lydia?"

I beamed. "Tony Blair" I said calmly, hands on my knees, sitting up straight.

The other kids blinked and looked at our teacher.

Our teacher looked at me very calmly, then ducked her head. Her shoulders shook for a few very long moments, as she made a few mirthful sounds into her chest, whilst we all looked at her, waiting for either a confirmation or denial.

After a few moments, she lifted her head. "Well" she said, lips still twitching. "Moving on."

My best friend's father was a Labour councillor. At one point, he brought a Labour MP-I can't remember which one, though he fit the exceptionally rare qualities of being a white, middle-class man-to visit our primary school. He took turns sitting with us and listening to us read. Because I was advanced in my reading,  I was often taken out to read alone.

The MP plonked himself down next to me, and began to listen to me read. I rattled through the words, with the customary nodding and smiling from the MP.

"That's a long word" he said, jabbing at one.

I looked at him, read the word and then began to read the rest of the book aloud without stopping.

When I'd finished, the MP looked at me. I looked at the MP.

"Well" said the MP.

"Are you Labour?" I asked, having learnt that that was the name of the Prime Minister's party.

"Well-yes-"

I looked at him calmly. "My mummy says your party's bloody stupid" I announced, before turning back to my book.

My teacher, my friend's father and the MP required another few moments of mirthful spluttering.

I was around six when the Iraq War began. I toddled down the stairs late one night, clutching my teddy, unable to sleep, and caught sight of Blair on the telly. I shuffled up to my father and climbed onto his knee.

"You should be asleep."

"What's happening?" I asked, while my father, as was his way when I came down at night, put me on his knee and cuddled me. On the TV screen, a newsreader was saying something about "shock and awe" while bombs exploded, fire licking into life.

"Bloody hell" said my father, and then, to me, "It's in a place called Iraq. It's a very long way away."

A few weeks later, I learnt that my cousin's husband Jay wasn't at home anymore.

"He's gone to Iraq" my father told me, stroking my cheek. "To help fight in the war." Somehow, though I don't remember in which conversation, I had absorbed that there was a war going on.

It was a while after this, at breakfast one morning, that my father put the paper down when I asked if Jay was still in Iraq.

"I'm afraid Jay had to come home" he told me quietly. "Jay's been hurt."

My mother muttered something about "Blair."

"Is he going to die?"

"No." My father arranged my spoon for me in my Coco Pops. "But he only has one foot now."

That December, my cousin Liam and I were playing about on the floor of my grandparents' living room. There was a man on the screen, who looked younger than anyone else. He smiled a lot, talking and gesticulating, and I watched him quietly.

"Who's that man?"

"He's the new leader of the Conservative party" my mother told me. "Your auntie's met him-or one of her friends has, I think."

"What's his name?"

"David Cameron."

I decided I liked Mr Cameron, because he reminded me a little of my father. To be fair, they sound completely different-my father's got a strong Scouse accent and sounds nothing like an Etonian-but something about the ease and the confidence of his speech reminded me of my father.

My apolitical father nodded when he saw him. "I like him" he said decisively. "Still not voting, but I like him the best."

I was ten when I sat in my grandparents' living room and watched as Blair left Downing Street. The newsreader was almost drowned out by the protestors at the gates, and we watched as Blair's children were directed back inside to leave via the back entrance, for their own safety.

"Poor things" my mother murmured, staring in particular at the youngest.

"It's his fault" barked my grandfather. "He's the one who's got them into this mess!"

"Is it good he's going then?" I asked, as we saw a picture of Gordon Brown, who looked remarkably like an older, grumpier version of Eeyore.

My grandfather snorted. "Not really. He's the idiot we're getting, instead."

I was unsettled for a while. I didn't like change very much, and I didn't like the look of the new Prime Minister. He looked much older and he never smiled.

As Blair did the same strained grin again for the cameras, my father glanced at him briefly, and then said quite calmly "The only thing Blair will be remembered for one day is Iraq."

"That's his fault" exploded my mother. "He sent us in. He lied."

My father shook his head. "It is his fault" he said calmly. "And I don't like him. But I don't think he lied. I think he wanted to believe it so much, he convinced himself it was true."

I was thirteen when David Cameron became Prime Minister, and Labour finally slithered out. I spent  a good deal of the election campaign engaging in debates with the girl who sat next to me in history, who comes from Labour stock. Our teacher watched us, amused, and encouraged us both, pointing out weaknesses in our arguments, encouraging us to find facts to back us up. We participated eagerly, finding it a fun game. We didn't realise we were being taught quietly to debate.

My mother greeted me as I climbed into the car on the day it was announced David Cameron had formed a coalition government with a beam. "We've won!" She grabbed me and pulled me into a hug. "We've won! It's over! It's over!"

We watched David Cameron's speech on the news that night, my mother beaming with happiness. She awwed at Brown's little boys, though, when they walked out of Downing Street. I didn't pay much attention to him. I just watched David and Samantha Cameron standing on the steps of Downing Street.

In 2016, I was sitting quietly on the sofa, having spent the day watching Tony Blair's statement on Chilcot. My father came home, and sat next to me.

"Did you see it?" I asked.

"Blair? Yep."

"What did you think?"

My father just shrugged, and sucked in a breath, looking at BBC News, which was replaying Blair's statement yet again. You couldn't tell if Blair was crying or not.

"The one thing Blair will always be remembered for" he said. "Is Iraq."

I couldn't tell if he sounded sad or not.

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