One of the unexpected joys of lockdown has been spending extended time with our 22-year-old son who, had there not been a global pandemic, would still be in South America using a gap year between universities to travel and, rightly, not giving a toss about his parents or very much else.
Instead, he’s been forced into lockdown with us, and despite the frustrations of not being able to widen our social contacts beyond each other, it’s been a real privilege to see him develop into such an engaging and caring young man, who this time last year would likely have blamed us for the lockdown and punished us with petulance and fury.
Often a parent’s understanding of their child as a young adult, or even as a much older one, is still set in the aspic of their turbulent teenage years. The lingering memory of a not-quite-yet-formed adult son or daughter who leaves home, for work, for study, for love, and often with a slam of the door. We rarely have the luxury of witnessing their gradual transition to adulthood and so they can remain in our minds as the truculent teen that couldn’t wait to leave and we were glad to see the back of.
But I can honestly say that the last 10 weeks with him at home has been a privilege. Clearly, an experience that I wouldn’t have wished for, given the grim circumstances that has forced this upon us, but one that has been enriching all the same.
Lively political chat, adventurous cooking, late night explorations of love, life and the world in between have been interwoven with teaching the dog new tricks, getting out on a bike and the goalposts, mothballed since his early teens, are a feature once more in the garden. He can now recite the names of flowers that I have grown, added words like ‘pergola’ to what was his sometimes-limited teenage lexicon and knows more about our lives than he would ever have taken an interest in before when his seemed to always take precedence. It’s been a wonder. And I will miss him.
But it has also meant I have witnessed in real time the dismal consequences on a young and hopeful mind of the Trumpian politics currently at play in our land and I have seen through his eyes the damaging effects of the denigration of democracy and the erosion of truth and trust in our political leaders that he had previously taken as read.
Just over two months ago, we forged a very special agreement with our government when we signed away our freedoms. Such was the trust that we had invested in the democratically elected powers-that-be, that we did as we were told. We complied, like sheep, on the understanding that the sacrifice was for the greater good.
We pulled up the shutters, we stopped work, cut ourselves off from family, friends and lovers. We stayed indoors, let loved ones die without our touch, didn’t stand at gravesides in final goodbyes, didn’t comfort in an embrace when our elderly parents became scared by their own vulnerability and we were denied that first cradle of a newborn as it arrived into this world.
All these things we have honourably, and sometimes painfully done, accepted them because of our civic duty. And we have done it for others.
And for us, it also meant a desperate scramble to get our son home from an abandoned trip of a lifetime as international borders closed and planes were grounded. We felt that visceral fear of separation, the ache of not knowing when we would see him again, and the agony of not being able to offer that parental balm that could soothe and reassure him that all would be OK.
And when we got him back, instead of acting on that instinct to hold him close, to stroke his hair, smell his scent, we kept to our safe distance while he went to his room and isolated according to the rules. And when, two weeks later, he emerged, symptom free, we were still cautious, nervous with the cuddles that we all so desperately craved. The boy that I had brought into the world, whose very bones I adore, we now treated like a leper. And that hurt.
We did all this out of trust. We did it because we followed the rules. And we did it out of love.
But Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s closest aide, has made us out to be fools. He has humiliated us and opened our son’s eyes to the debasement of democracy and etched something in his brain about the ugliness of political motivations that will never heal.
He has seen for himself the way the truth gets twisted, how easily elected politicians are prepared to eschew honour, how government ministers will willingly operate as sock puppets, follow the herd, and he has seen a government prepared to mock its own people for their servility.
Cummings’ circumstances were not exceptional, they were ordinary. And as he set out, in agonisingly mundane detail, the “complicated and tricky situation” that led him to break lockdown and drive from London to Durham at the end of March with a sick wife and a four-year-old child in tow, Cummings, whose currency to the Prime Minister is in understanding the common man, revealed himself to know nothing of of the sort, because he was blind to the fact that in this pandemic, his situation was no different, no more ‘tricky’ or ‘complicated’ than it is for the rest of us.
How dare Dominic Cummings expect to be exonerated for his actions on the excuse that he was only being a good father. What does he think the rest of us have been doing?
I’m angry. Too right I’m angry. Cummings has adulterated all that we held dear. Rules, respect, trust. All gone and in the process, Boris Johnson, whose ambition as a child was to be the ‘King of the World’, has shown himself to be nothing more than the hand-maiden to an unelected iconoclast who was the architect of a public health message that we were all in this together, but who gambled on our collective sense of national responsibility and trashed all spirit of those words with his egocentric approach to a national crisis.
Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds, asked that if we accept being lied to, patronised and treated by a prime minister as mugs – for it is trust in Johnson that is at the very heart of the Cummings’ imbroglio – then what are we to teach our children?
I don’t need to look too far to see the answer. It’s writ large in the political disillusionment now rooted in my own son.