Discover more from Numb at the Lodge
Numb at the Spectator summer party
It’s all one big club, and you’re not in it. But I am.
Lately I’ve been doing this thing where I stay inside. I’ve been telling my friends that I can’t really see them because there’s so much writing I need to do, I have so much on, and then I stay inside and don’t even write. I’m not really sure what I have been doing. I think it involves talking parrots on YouTube, staring at emails without replying to them, and the essays of Charles Lamb. The days drip steadily into each other, and without even changing they turn into months. Every beautiful summer day you’re not outside feels like dying; you’ll fritter away too many days, let the night come down on you too many times, and then you’ll be eighty, and that’s it: that was your life, that was what you did.
But it’s all so unreal out there. Whenever I’ve dragged myself out it’s usually been because there are some Americans in town, and every time they come here they all say the same thing. London feels so nice, they say, so peaceful and quiet and calm. Not like New York, which has gone feral. There’s a foul mood in the air out there. You can’t walk two blocks without seeing someone sprawled out across the sidewalk, maybe breathing, maybe not. Lunatics yelp through the night. In America they’re pushing each other in front of trains. But here in Britain, where the actual situation is worse, much worse, we just muddle around eating crisps. All our institutions are rotting, we are becoming a poor country instead of a rich one, and maybe we ought to be going feral about it, but we are not.
There are some writers who party all the time, who don’t really draw any clear distinction between their work and their social lives. All your favourite writers are also your closest friends. I like those people, but I’ve come to realise, regretfully, that I am not one of them. At my core, I’m a weirdo. My closest friends all work in pubs. I like medieval poetry and I’m sober all the time; I can show my face at the odd literary hangout and talk shop here and there but the writers I’m really interested in have been in the ground for eight hundred years, where they produce very little gossip.
At the start of the year, I wrote about my descent into the notorious downtown New York scene. A few people seem to have interpreted that thing as a whole-cloth parody of the professionally agonised insiders who keep writing about that set, but that wasn’t it at all. I am not an insider; I’m a tourist. It was about the experience that keeps happening to me, which is hanging out with someone else’s circle of friends. This circle happened to be notorious, a self-aware and self-obsessed little scene, but that’s all a scene is: someone else’s circle of friends, having parties at you.
Anyway, last week I ended up once again hanging out with someone else’s circle of friends. But this time it was the circle of friends that governs the entire country.
I’m still not entirely sure why, but I was invited to the Spectator’s summer party. The Spectator, if you’ve not encountered it, is the world’s longest-running weekly magazine. Two hundred years ago it was a radical liberal journal, these days it’s quite firmly on the right. I write some occasional arts features for them. I don’t like everything they publish, but a magazine that only published the kind of things I like would probably have a circulation of one. The Spectator summer party, meanwhile, is the big event on the London media-political social calendar. Every year, every Tory MP of note shows up to sip champagne as our island slowly crumbles into the sea. The BBC’s ferociously hard-hitting interviewers grin and gossip with the people they are sworn to hold to account. The policy advisors for the government form a gaggle with the policy advisors for the opposition. Everyone can relax: they are among friends. In Britain, all the politicians are former media people who decided to start making the news instead of simply covering it, and all the media people are former politicians easing into their sinecures. It’s all one big club, and you’re not in it. But apparently, I am.
This is what I learned: that they serve a seemingly unlimited amount of booze, but not any canapés. And that Rishi Sunak is much, much shorter than I had imagined.
The party was held in the small shady patio out the back of the Spectator’s offices in Westminster, which for one day only had been transformed into a sort of cattle pen for politicians and their handsome political wives. Everyone was crammed in there with the kind of sheer density of people that usually get classed as a war crime. Far away on the other side of the patio, I witnessed the immense form of Andrew Neil looming over the sea of people like a great ruddy-cheeked oil tanker. Elsewhere, Greyson Perry was decked out like a giant frosted cupcake, causing waves of eye-rolls to radiate from him in every direction. I stood for a moment, trying to catch my bearings, at which point a tiny person with a bottle of Pol Roger manifested at my side and offered to refill my still-full glass. This happened roughly every twenty seconds for the rest of the night. The tiny agency workers ducked and weaved through the crowd like a mass of ferrets. None of them spoke English. Nobody looked them in the eye.
Nearby, former Prime Minister Liz Truss was trying to mingle. She would stand nervously on the edge of a little circle, and then when someone said something sort-of funny she would open her mouth wide, as if she were about to swallow a small rodent whole, and enthusiastically emit a breathy prehistoric cackle. At which point the people around her, suddenly aware of her presence, would shuffle imperceptibly to close their ranks and lock Liz out of the circle. It was very strange to see Liz Truss there, acting so much like herself. Everyone’s unkind image of her, conjured out of a few newspaper headlines and YouTube clips, was, it turned out, exactly bang on. Maybe I still believe that famous people should have some mysterious extra aura when you see them in real life. She should have glowed with a residue of power. But she did not. She was the autistic girl who gets invited to the party as a joke.
Nobody wanted to hang out with Liz Truss, but I did. She felt like a kindred spirit, also out of her depth here, also not quite sure who she was supposed to talk to. I wanted to get to know her. I wanted to learn what it was like to be the Mayfly Queen. I never found out. After a few more attempts to make friends, she strode swiftly out of the party and wasn’t seen again for the rest of the night.
So I did some mingling myself. This is how it would go. I would find myself in conversation with a very genial man in a linen suit, who would monologue at me extensively on some subject I’d never once before considered in my life—the different types of tweed and when it’s appropriate to wear them, or the perils and pitfalls of buying a French winery, or how difficult it is these days to find a maker of bespoke fountain pens that hasn’t been poisoned by woke groupthink. Eventually an editor would elbow his way over through the crowd with a smirk. I never thought I’d see the day, he’d say, Sam’s rubbing shoulders with the Tory cabinet. At which point I’d look again at the very genial man in the linen suit. I did recognise him from somewhere, I’d realise; some ministerial scandal, some unflattering papshot in the Guardian. I don’t really follow the news, I’d admit. Eric Gruggins, the editor would say, is the Secretary of State for Torture. Wait, I’d say, torture? The Right Honourable Eric would give a good hearty laugh. Well I don’t torture anyone myself, he’d say. Unless you count civil servants! This would fail to entirely pacify me. It’s about preventing torture, right? I’d say. Eric would smack his lips. With the departmental budgets we’ve got, he’d say, it may as well be! And then he’d discourse in the same jovial tones about how Britain could be Europe’s next big torture hub if only he had the funds, and about the incredible opportunities offered by something he called Torture 2.0.
And eventually I would leave, and then it would happen again. I talked about recreational mussel-picking with the Minister for Cutting Very Small Holes in Mosquito Nets. I listened to a woman describe every feature of her new Tesla in exhaustive detail; it turned out that she was the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Getting Ireland Back. I met think tank people, communications directors, lobbyists, far too many bloggers. I even bummed a cigarette off Orville Sleck, who you might know as the chair of the Conservative Friends of the Mongol Empire. He’d just put on a conference in London, the New National Kurultai, in which various MPs and opinion-havers droned through their panels, which were all about fostering civic belonging in an age of great migrations, while eating strips of raw horseflesh and drinking fermented donkey’s milk. There was an awful lot of tosh written about it in the media, he said. They don’t understand horde politics, as soon as you mention that ordinary people simply do just naturally want to travel with their yurts, they act as if you want to tear down the Library of Baghdad. But he did, in fact, approve of Hulagu Khan’s sacking of the Library of Baghdad. Too many hashish-addled urbanites.
I liked Orville, maybe against my better judgement. I don’t agree with him about the pyramids of skulls, but at least he was a genuine political weirdo. Unlike everyone else there, he wasn’t just talking shop, or making banal social chitchat, or rambling about his new car. Instead, he held forth about Britain’s duty to intervene in the South Sudanese conflict, in support of the migratory Dinka and against the agricultural Shilluk. But he also sounded strangely aggrieved; he kept talking about the woke sedentist elites, how they hate the capitalist spirit because it’s just eternal pastoral nomadism in its modern form. But here he was, at the heart of the British establishment. His party had been in government for thirteen years; its MPs had spoken at his conference. Somehow, that didn’t matter. All his ideas really did seem to spring from a vast, savage, foreign empire, but it wasn’t Mongolia.
In the end, I think Orville was a little desperate. I think everyone there was quietly desperate, so much so that they were now signing up to the idea that Britain could be prosperous again if we just taught our children to shoot arrows from horseback. All these people had the same dented and knobbly facial structure, the same lightly tousled dull-blond hair: the same Norman-French faces that have ruled this country for a thousand years. Once they wrapped themselves in seven layers of steel. They cleaved through the heads of innumerable peasants with a single stroke of the sword-arm. They conquered the world. The Irrawaddy ran red with blood; corpses were strewn across the valleys of uMgungundlovu. Now they work in comms, and their kingdom is dying, and they don’t know why, but in their hearts they know they have no one else to blame.
Eventually one of the think tank guys had a great idea. Would you like to meet Rishi? he said. His name was Adam Quenengo and he ran an outfit called AngliConnex, which was dedicated to the idea that we could save the British economy and also rebuild a strong sense of national belonging by integrating the entire private sector into the Church of England through a new class of ‘business deacons.’ We’d been talking for a few minutes about nothing very much when he’d suddenly looked at me as if for the first time. Wait, he said, you’re Sam Kriss. I admitted that I was, and he made a kind of bowing we-are-not-worthy motion. I love your writing, he said. Didn’t you use to be on the left? I’m still on the left, I said, and he laughed as if I’d said something very funny. I’ve got a great idea, he said, would you like to meet Rishi? To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to meet the Prime Minister. I’d wanted to meet tragic hopeful Liz Truss; I’d wanted to see if there was anything living behind Boris Johnson’s chummy bluster and dull thuggish eyes. But Rishi Sunak was not, as far as I could tell, a particularly interesting person. His favourite novelist is Jilly Cooper. His favourite TV show is Emily in Paris. His plan to save this stagnant island doesn’t even involve any Mongols or business deacons; he seems to think it’ll all sort itself out if we just keep saying the word blockchain. What would we even have to talk about? More bland chitchat, probably; wineries and pens. But I said sure.
Adam beamed. This’ll be hilarious, he said, you know I think the two of you would really get on. You’re both such thinkers. I scanned the sea of well-groomed heads for one that looked suitably Prime Ministerial. Where is he? I said. I don’t think I’ve glimpsed him all night. Ah, said Adam, you won’t have seen him from up there, he’s actually quite short. Which I did know. In the years before Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister I had, like everyone, assumed that he was a fairly tall man, because he had the gangly proportions of a fairly tall man, and maybe also because he was known to be extremely rich. And his press team had done everything possible to maintain the illusion: he gave all his speeches on top of cleverly hidden boxes and always had himself photographed from below, stuff like that, but when you’re running a country the lie can only last so long. Everyone now knows that Rishi Sunak is a kind of homunculus, proportioned exactly like an adult man but disquietingly smaller, like the travel-sized deodorants you buy at airports. But when Adam dragged me to another corner of the garden, I still couldn’t see the Prime Minister anywhere. Here he is, said Adam, and gestured towards a nondescript-looking white guy in a rather heavy-looking suit, who was very clearly not Rishi Sunak. Uh, I said. The white guy didn’t even acknowledge me. He nodded at Adam, reached into his inside jacket pocket, and retrieved a small, expensive-looking red lacquer case embossed with the Royal Arms. It was only slightly larger than a packet of cigarettes. A slight hush fell around us as the case was opened. Inside was Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, First Lord of the Treasury, Minister for the Civil Service, and Minister for the Union; net worth, seven hundred and thirty million pounds. Oh, someone whispered, look, he’s asleep. The handsome political wives all smiled wholesomely to themselves. He was indeed asleep. Rishi Sunak lay curled up in his miniature suit, nestled dreamily in the padding and velvet. His pillow was a single flake of dandruff. His blanket was a postage stamp. Someone had given him a half-thimbleful of Pol Roger, and he was tuckered out for the night. He was dreaming about trade deals. Nuclear submarines skulk the oceans at his command.
It occurred to me that it might say something about this country, that it had fallen into the hands of such small men. Here we were in our crummy crumbling kingdom, poorer by the day, adoring this micromultimillionaire. But then Winston Churchill was short too; a civil servant had to pack his cigar boxes with tweezers and a magnifying glass.
Disappointed, I left the political types to their business and tried hanging out with a few of the journos. But annoyingly, none of the big famous British opinion writers I hate with every ounce of my being seemed to be in attendance, even though there are a lot of them. And if the big famous Spectator contributors I really like were there I didn’t run into them either. No Will Self, no Jonathan Meades. Dan Hitchens told me he’d introduce me to his dad, but Peter had apparently slipped away at my approach. I ended up talking to another lefty freelancer who wasn’t entirely sure how she’d ended up here. She was sheltering in a corner, sucking at her champagne and her cigarette in what looked like shellshock. It’s draining, isn’t it, she said, being around so many evil people. Feels like I ought to be throwing my drink in someone’s face, causing a scene, I don’t know. I told her a story. Back in 2017, I’d gone to Washington DC with a few other British journalists to gawp at the inauguration of Donald Trump. On the big day itself, I turned a corner onto a fairly quiet street and found myself staring at none other than Nigel Farage. So I did what anyone would do in the situation: I yelled CUNT! at him, and then WANKER! for good measure. He spun around like a delicate woodland creature I’d just shot with a hunting rifle, and I fled. And afterwards I was very pleased with myself for having done that, for the courage of my rudeness. Now I’m not so sure. He got everything he ever wanted; he got to remake the entire political order in his image. I got to call him a cunt on the street.
We talked a bit about Marxism. She’d noticed that a lot of her old Marxist comrades had been finding God lately, or, more specifically, the Virgin Mary. They’ve stopped going to protests and started going to church. I quoted that old Benedict Anderson line, about how Marxism’s great weakness is that its ‘imaginative response to the overwhelming burden of human suffering, disease, mutilation, grief, age, and death’ can only be an ‘impatient silence.’ She told me that actually, she’d come to Marxism through her religious upbringing. Islam, with all its competing schools of jurisprudence, its thousand years of careful exegeses of the Qur’an: how could it not point you right towards the philosophy that takes the world apart at its seams?
At this point it was closing in on midnight and the party was drawing down. Suddenly there were only a few scattered smokers left on the patio. The tiny agency workers had ceased their scurryings. An end to the inexhaustible supply of Pol Roger. So I decided to leave. But as I was ascending through the Spectator building, a friendly head poked out of a doorway, one that even I could recognise as belonging to a fairly senior Tory. Come here! she said. Inside, a good chunk of the Cabinet were holed up with various other dregs of the party in some editor’s office. They’d stolen the whisky out his drawer. The senior Tory offered me some and I said no, and then she insisted and I said yes. Sam’s a writer, someone told her. She oohed appreciatively. And maybe it was that last splash of whisky that sent me over the edge, but I started to act out. A few mild jabs at first. Oh ha ha ha, what a fun party you lot put on, shame about all the mess though. No not the party, ha ha ha, the country. She laughed right along with me. So I went further. I tried to go a little bit feral. You and your friends, I said, you’ve fucked it, haven’t you? You’ve turned us into a basket case. With your class sadism, your blithering cruelty, your mad belief that every crisis is just another opportunity to punish the poor. You wanted to keep wages down, slash the state, make us desperate, turn the whole country into one big service station for finance capital. And you thought nothing would touch you, because you could just unleash another wave of frothing nativist bitterness whenever it was politically expedient. But now it’s all gone tits up, hasn’t it? And this time, we’re going to drag you down with us. Into the filth. She just smiled and lightly touched my arm. You’re so impassioned, she said, mock-shivering, it’s so bracing, I love that. Eventually it got to the point where I was roaring in her face in a kind of cod-Cockney accent that felt appropriate at the time, TORY SCUM! TORY SCUM! while she giggled and twirled and chanted along, Tory scum! Tory scum!, punching the air, and soon the whole room was chanting and cheering and I collapsed into a sofa, defeated.
The senior Tory perched down next to me. You’re fun, she said. Listen, a few of us are going on to a little afterparty. Somewhere a bit more private. You should join us. The vision flashed in queasy hues: leathery, whooping, bottom-pinching sex with half the Tory front benches. Droopy bellies and limp ministerial cocks. I have a girlfriend, I managed. Well then, said the senior Tory, we’ll just have to make sure not to tell her, won’t we? She stood up. Come along, she said. She spoke in the tones of absolute authority: the genteel, patrician voice that has never spoken in this island and not, sooner or later, been obeyed. It was pointless, all my posturing: I am an Englishman. And so, in the end, I came.
Join the club