It’s a time for long books. I’m halfway through War and Peace. Hilary Mantel’s latest is next, an act of literary devotion which requires that I put aside her anti-Catholic polemicising. No such doubt attaches to the third and final volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Lady Thatcher. The prose glitters with the author’s diffident sagacity. It made me wonder how our first female prime minister, a chemist by training, would have brought her scientific method to bear on the problem of coronavirus.
A sympathetic reading of her life will never satisfy some. Roaming near St Paul’s with a camera crew, I was astonished by the venom of a small minority who had gathered to ‘‘celebrate’’ Baroness Thatcher’s death on the day of her funeral seven years ago. One man, I would say in his late fifties, kept shouting “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie – dead, dead, dead.” He didn’t care that he was being filmed. And so I didn’t agonise about how people – perhaps including his employer – might feel about this display.
My late wife, though incapable of such crass tribal hatred, always went slightly doolally at the mention of Mrs T. She was partly cured by listening to Moore answer questions about the first volume of his Thatcher trilogy at the Chalke Valley History Festival. Had she been alive to read the final instalment, in particular the deft way Moore handles the pathos of Lady Thatcher’s twilight years, her knee might have stopped jerking altogether.
Like politics, journalism is not blessed with a high incidence of scientifically literate practitioners. Sitting in a studio, I try not to make a virtue of my ignorance. But I think it’s important for news presenters to show their petticoats and not be afraid of dropping the pretence of omniscience. The BBC’s Evan Davies is especially good at this. As an economist, he also seems to get that epidemiology is more like ‘‘the dismal science’’ than physics. A series of educated guesses, not definitive judgements.
Helena and Richard Morrissey, parents to nine children, have decided to open up about their fabulous brood, launching a new podcast on family matters. Hitherto, I sense that Helena – given her high profile in the City – has been reluctant to be defined by her fecundity. Listening to her on Desert Island Discs, I was reminded why this might be. Under close questioning, I sometimes struggle to explain. “Why six children?” The question can feel like a charge. You could hear the incomprehension in the voice of Helena’s interviewer. How could a woman who had so precisely managed her career adopt such a metaphysical approach to family formation? Part of the joy of six, or indeed nine, is that sense of letting life find its own way. Richard and Helena, who met studying philosophy at Oxford, are both clever enough to understand this strange and unfashionable doctrine.
Of course, they also have the means. And Richard too, putting in the hard yards of childcare. In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph they noted how their children were coping well with the lockdown. Learning to defer gratification or get over an argument with someone who will still be there tomorrow are part of a large family’s skill-set. Amid all the coverage about how households are coping, one statistical shift goes unmentioned – that the majority of British families feature an only child. For many children, the only thing worse than being cooped up with siblings is being cooped up without them.
In the article the Morrisseys hinted at how large families might be a kind of vaccine against the epidemics of modern childhood. Namely, mental health problems such as depression, as well as eating disorders and bullying. This was partly the subject of a book I wrote for the think-tank Civitas in 2013. Five years later I was widowed. Some of the studies in the book assumed a new relevance. The data said that children cope better with parental loss – death or, more commonly, divorce – if they have siblings. I wonder if post-coronavirus studies, perhaps even the inevitable public inquiry, will find that the hardships of lockdown were significantly ameliorated in multi-child families.
Back to books. My friend Ed West, formerly of this parish, spent 10 years producing a book which should have become a set text in its field. Small Men on the Wrong Side of History: The Decline, Fall and Unlikely Return of Conservatism is funny, candid, wise and prophetic. It was also published just as Britain went into lockdown and may, consequently, never get the credit it so richly deserves. Ed’s plight made me ponder afresh how we make enduring contributions to the ideological contests of our generation, particularly when the world is changing quickly. The value of siblings, like our newly cherished key-workers, is undervalued. How to frame the argument? I’m still working on that. In the meantime, I’ve re-registered an old internet domain name I’d let lapse: AnotherChildMatters.com.
Colin Brazier is a presenter for Sky News and the author of Sticking Up for Siblings