Everyone keeps saying Twitter and social media and everything else in the modern world is destroying our ability to pay attention to anything for any lengthy period of time. This is usually presented as though it must be a bad thing. But is it?
Consider the question of books. I used to be a completist. That is, once I started a book I considered finishing it my duty. No longer. I now think that it is not only acceptable to abandon a book half or three-quarters of the way through but often actually preferable to do so. Life is short but most books are too long. Doubtless this is evidence in the decline of editing but the fact remains you can suck most of the marrow from most books without having to read them to their end. Skipping isn’t just fine, it is liberating.
I thought of this anew when reading Andrew O’Hagan’s “The Secret Life” – I am interviewing him at next month’s Boswell book festival in Ayrshire – which, admirably, is not only brief (250 pages) but contains three small books for the price of one. O’Hagan explores Julian Assange, the man who might have invented Bitcoin, and the dark recesses and riptides of identity online. Each could have been a book in itself; each story is much better for being told with brevity.
A rule, then: if you can’t say it in 300 pages, does it need to be said at all?
Better, as the old saw has it, to stay silent and risk being thought a fool than to confirm that impression by speaking. This, I can’t help but feel, is something Nick Timothy might care to reflect upon. Since he and Fiona Hill were blamed for the Tory disaster in last year’s general election, “The Chiefs” – as, tellingly, they liked to be known – have taken different paths. Hill has to all intents and purposes disappeared. Timothy, I’m afraid, has not.
Timothy, it is important to remember, is a Big Thinker of Big Thoughts. The election manifesto he wrote last year was so soaked in virtue it seemed less interested in helping Theresa May win a majority than in showcasing the moral worth of its author. It’s not that Timothy was mistaken about the challenges facing Britain in the future; just that he thought too much of himself for recognising them.
Newspapers, happily, are places for second acts. So Timothy’s emergence as a Telegraph columnist was perhaps predictable. I am not sure it has been a success, however. This week, for instance, Timothy wrote that Theresa May did not know about the now infamous “Go Home” vans that trundled round London for a while during her time as Home Secretary. She was on holiday, you see, when the decision to send the vans out was taken.
This seemed a curious defence since making it required Timothy to admit May wasn’t capable of running or overseeing her department. The implied message: She’s not malicious, merely incompetent! Worse still, Timothy’s clunking intervention breathed another day or two of air into the story, ensuring that the question of what May knew and when she knew it would have to be investigated by journalists who, with some reason, suspected Timothy’s account far too convenient to be true. And so it proved.
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As strategic genius goes, this didn’t seem to go very far. Perhaps that’s why, stung by all this, Timothy deleted his Twitter account on Friday.
I concede that I am mildly biased in the question of Hill vs Timothy as, more than 20 years ago, I knew Hill when we both worked for Scotsman publications in Edinburgh. She was on the feature desk at The Scotsman, while I was starting out on the sports desk at Scotland on Sunday. We’d loiter in the smoking room – offices still had such things back in those happy days and, indeed, newspaper offices still reeked of ink and history and had not yet become indistinguishable from, with due respect, insurance offices – and then spend long and happy hours in the Jinglin’ Geordie, the closest pub to The Scotsman’s offices.
This was a proper newspaper bar; despite enjoying fine views, its curtains were permanently drawn, giving the place a sepulchral air no matter the time of day. Indeed, it was a place where time stood still to the extent it felt like time stolen. Not, perhaps, quite Death in the Afternoon but certainly Pause in the Afternoon. The carpet was ale-soaked and I can’t remember it serving anything more ambitious than pies and brides. If it hadn’t been for the fug of cigarette smoke, I dare say it would have stank.
Anyway, Hill was garrulous and great fun. She was under-rated then, too, being too easily thought a wee lassie from Greenock who could only write about shoes. This was not true; she could – and did – write about football too. Still, if you’d said back then that one person in the building would become chief of staff to the prime minister I guarantee not a single person would have selected Fiona Hill.
Stories of how she ill-treated staff and colleagues have become the stuff of Whitehall legend. Many of them must be true. But Hill had a serious side too, as evidenced by her work on modern slavery. And she had more political sense than she is credited with too. The Dementia Tax was one of Nick Timothy’s Big Ideas; Hill was one of the few people around the prime minister who spotted that it was going to be a disaster.
Shares in Hill, then, remain undervalued. Or, to put it another way, they are under-valued relative to stocks in Timothy.
The County Championship has been pushed to the margins of the English summer. The prime months of July and August are increasingly given over to 50 and 20 over cricket. This makes commercial sense; TwentyTwenty cricket helps pay the bills even if it does little to develop players for the England team that, across all formats, pays the still greater share of county cricket’s bills.
Still, when the old dame gets going it is hard to resist her charms even when they are put on display on green pitches in three-jumpered April. Ever since 1981 and the Summer of Botham I have followed Somerset County Cricket Club through thick and, more often, thinner. An each year hope springs anew that this might, at long last, finally be Somerset’s year to win the county championship. For the first time. I repeat, for the very first sodding time.
And each year, it’s usually clear that this is going to be a forlorn quest before we’ve even got to May. April really can be the cruellest month. Perhaps this year will be different but, frankly, I’m wise to that trick of the mind by now.
One of the loveliest developments in recent years has been the growth in the BBC’s ball-by-ball radio coverage of county cricket. Everyone always assumes no-one watches county cricket but, however true that may be, many people retain an interest in and affection for the championship. The BBC’s service is wholly admirable and has a larger audience than you may think.
This year Somerset, like some other counties, are supplementing that radio coverage by live-streaming pictures of their matches – synced to the radio broadcast – on YouTube. This is both welcome and liable to significantly reduce my productivity this summer.
On Friday morning I tuned in for the first time and Marcus Trescothick, the great stalwart of Somerset cricket, was plumb LBW to the second ball I watched. I fear it may be one of those summers.
County cricket like Test match cricket, demands patience and time. In that sense it stands against the tide; a hopeless cause perhaps but not a wasted one. The ECB, meanwhile, have decided that English cricket needs a new format for people worried that TwentyTwenty cricket might stretch their attention span beyond breaking point. Hence proposals for an eight-team city-based competition in which innings will be limited to 100 deliveries.
This is supposed to gain a new audience for cricket and perhaps it will though marketing efforts which stress how little cricket there will actually be seem a strange way of preaching the cricketing gospel. They might as well just say ‘This is cricket for people who don’t like cricket’.
Test match cricket, on the other hand, is so thoroughly at odds with prevailing trends that this should be its unique selling point. It lasts five days! That is both virtue and feature, not a bug or a problem to be fixed. Sell it on what makes it unique and unusual. Do that and you may be surprised by the manner and extent to which people will begin to pay attention. It matters precisely because it takes a long time. Step away from the modern world and sink into a Test match. Good things, as the old Guinness slogan put it, come to those who wait.